Vast fields of cultivated and wild lavender color the countryside of southern France, Spain, and other areas of the western Mediterranean region. One of the world’s most beloved herbs, this highly aromatic plant in the mint family bears narrow, gray-green leaves and purple or pinkish flowers. The genus Lavandula includes several dozen species and hundreds of cultivars. Lavendula angustifolia, sometimes called true or English lavender, is a favorite garden species.
The common name lavender comes from the Roman lavare (“to wash”), a reference to the herb’s use as a scent for bathing and washing clothes. But the versatile herb has had many other uses, too. During the Middle Ages, people believed lavender to be an aphrodisiac, and they sprinkled lavender water on a lover’s head to keep him or her faithful. In the 19th century, women prone to fainting revived themselves with lavender-scented handkerchiefs. English farmers even tucked lavender under their hats to prevent sunstrokes and headaches.
Common Names: Lavender, True Lavender, English Lavender
Description: Bushy branching shrub, 2 to 3 feet tall; narrow, gray-green leaves; spikes of small purple, blue, or pink flowers; highly aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 5
Flowering: Early to midsummer
Parts Used: Flowers, leaves, and stems
Range/Habitat: Native to France and the western Mediterranean, naturalized in Europe, the Middle East, and India; dry, stony soils
Lavender flowers and leaves add color and a pungent, slightly bitter flavor to salads. The plant is sometimes used to flavor oil, vinegar, cheese, jam, honey, sugar, and ice cream and other desserts. The flowers can be candied and used to decorate cakes. On its own or in tea blends, lavender makes a delicious hot or cold beverage.
Well known for its soothing effects, lavender contains chemical compounds that appear to have anti-inflammatory, muscle-relaxing, pain-relieving, and sedative properties. It benefits digestion by stimulating the secretion of gastric juices, including bile. Lavender’s long-standing reputation as a powerful antiseptic has been supported by many studies, and recent research suggests that it has antifungal and antiviral properties, too.
The flowers are often used in sleep pillows — small sachets tucked under pillows to help ensure restful sleep. Lavender flower tea has been used to relieve anxiety, depression, indigestion, insomnia, and restlessness. It’s also been used as a mouthwash for halitosis and as a douche for vaginal yeast infections.
Undiluted lavender oil can be used to reduce pain and speed the healing of minor burns, insect bites, and other wounds. Try adding the fragrant oil to massage oil or bathwater to relieve sore muscles and tension. Inhaling the diluted oil, as in aromatherapy, promotes calmness.
Caution: People with sensitive skin could experience contact dermatitis when exposed to lavender oil. Test a small amount of the oil on your skin before applying it to a large area, or dilute it with a carrier oil or water.
Lavender is an excellent choice for borders, rock gardens, and hedges. The herb releases its scent when touched, so it is often planted in entryways, along paths and decks, and in other areas where passersby will brush against it. Lavender’s gray-green foliage and purple or pink flowers pair attractively with roses, yarrow, and echinacea.
Aromatic lavender is used to scent skin lotions, shampoos, soaps, perfumes, potpourris, and herbal sachets. Lavender “wands” (made by weaving the bloom spikes) can be hung in closets or placed in drawers to scent clothing and deter moths.
How to grow it
Plant lavender in well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. Cut the bloom spikes just as they begin to open. Dry them in small bunches inside paper bags. Strip the dry buds from the stems, then store them in an airtight container. Replace woody, overgrown plants with new ones every 4 to 5 years. Propagate by taking semiripe cuttings in summer.
If you have a dissecting microscope, you can look at the underside of a lavender leaf and see its many small round glands. These glands are filled with the powerful substance known as lavender oil.
From earliest times, lavender was recognized not only for its wonderful aroma, but also for its remarkable disinfectant powers. The Romans filled their communal baths with lavender flowers, and during the Middle Ages, houses were scrubbed with lavender extract to cleanse and disinfect them. During the Great Plague of London (1665–1666), glove makers scented their wares with lavender to ward off disease. (Lavender repels fleas, now known to have transmitted the plague.)
René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, discovered the healing powers of lavender after being burned in a laboratory accident in 1910. His hands started to develop gas gangrene, but he rinsed them with lavender oil and within a day or so they started to heal. Gottefossé is known as the father of aromatherapy; not only did he coin the term, but he also spread the word about the medical use of essential oils, such as lavender, through his research, teachings, and writing. During the First World War, lavender oil was employed as an antiseptic and is said to have saved many lives by preventing infection. Today, many scientific studies and clinical trials support the traditional uses of lavender oil for healing and improving health.