Welcome back to the Zaytuna Farm herb tour, we’ve met 7 herbal heroes so far. Rosemary, Yarrow, Aloe, Mint, Sage, Comfrey and Parsley. They’re all special, with unique qualities, but even the same species, variety or cultivar can have differing nutritional, aromatic and chemical profiles depending on the soil on which it’s grown. That’s why, although today’s herbal hero, Lavender, is grown in so many places, her essential oil from each one is slightly different from the next. A beautiful reminder that although the flowers might be the aim for some, the soil is what makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.
Of course we’re talking about Ms Lavandula, more commonly known as Lavender, the lady of English cottage gardens and French fields. She seems simple and undemanding, but she contains multitudes. There are around 45 known species of Lavender, as well as numerous subspecies, varieties and cultivars. English lavender is the main species used medicinally, but many species are grown for the appearance, aroma or medicinal properties in different parts of the world.
In case you’ve never met her, her feathery silvery-grey-green foliage is the first thing you’ll notice, and then if you meet her at the right time, the grey-blue-purple buds of flowers. She’ll grow around 70-80cm tall in the right conditions, and nearly as wide. Her flower spikes grow from early summer to early autumn, and grow between 10 and 20cm long.
How to grow Lavender
But the right conditions are not always to be had. Our friend is little bit picky, and in general prefers lighter soil, with good drainage and full sun. Pruning is done in autumn after flowering ends, and she can be pruned about a third at a time. Adding lime to the soil around lavender can help them thrive. Lavenders at Zaytuna Farm do not always thrive, due to the hot, damp, humid climate we sometimes have here. In these situations, lavender can be susceptible to root or fungal diseases, which can be treated by removing any affected leaves and giving the plants a sprinkling of dolomite at 4-6 weeks intervals in these conditions, according to Isabell Shippard who also grew Lavender in the subtropics. In colder climates Lavender will over winter provided she has loose well-draining soil.
Lavender is grown by seed, tip cuttings and layering. Germinating seeds can be variable, and the plants themselves initially grow slowly when grown from seed. Seeds may not always be true to type so tip cuttings and layerings can be a better way to get more of a lavender you love. Take tip cuttings that are 10-15cm long in spring or autumn and start them in a loose sandy mix.
Lavender in the kitchen is more of a novelty than a staple but she makes an appearance every now and then nonetheless. Infused vinegars, relishes and jams, lavender baked goods, and lavender sugar are all possible.
Where Ms Lavender really shines is in the herbal medicine cabinet. It seems that she can help with whatever minor ailment you might be able to think of. Lavender is pain-relieving, calming, antibiotic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, digestive and a mild sedative.
A lavender infusion can be made with fresh or dried flower buds. Medicinally, flowers are the most commonly used part, but the leaves can be substituted in many cases. A lavender infusion is said to be good for bad breath, for colicky babies, mild depression, anxiety, tension, indigestion, and coughs. An infusion can also be used in bath water to help calm cantankerous kids. This is a safer and gentler option than using essential oils in your bath, because oil and water don’t mix, and essential oils can sit on the surface of the water and irritate (or burn) sensitive skin.
Lavender infused oil (made with dried not fresh flowers and leaves) can be used for bites, stings, sunburn, in combination with neem for head lice, headaches, cold sores, arthritis, sore joints and muscles and scabies. To dry lavender flowers for later use, simply pick the entire stem, in the mornings after the dew has dried. Hang or lay out somewhere with good ventilation to dry thoroughly.
Many of us remember lavender sachets, tied up and buried in cupboards or drawers. In the same way lavender is also a wonderful addition to a small dream sachet, for it’s natural relaxant and sedative properties. Both of these are more natural and safer alternatives to supermarket air fresheners which may contain up to 3000 synthetic chemicals!
Lavender has been traditionally used in perfumery and aromatherapy, especially for it’s calming and soothing effects. Combined with rosemary in a carrier oil it makes an easy muscle rub for tired muscles. Blended with Peppermint essential oil in a carrier, it makes a soothing head rub for headaches and tension.
Despite having GRAS status (generally recognised as safe) many internet experts advise to the contrary. Undiluted Lavender essential oil can burn skin or cause skin reactions, so it is always best to dilute lavender essential oil in a carrier before applying it to the skin. Lavender is generally not recommended for internal use during pregnancy.
Lavender takes a little more patience and attention to grow than some of the herbs we’ve met so far, but her soothing scent, and the sight of bees dancing between her flower buds makes her a garden companion that will be good company for many years.
Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies by Penny Woodward
Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand
How Can I use Herbs in my Daily Life by Isabell Shippard
Alchemy of Herbs by Rosalee De La Foret
Herbal Remedies by Nicola Peterson