There are few scents in this world that evoke the feeling of clean – lavender is one of them. Its common and scientific name originates from lavare, the Latin word for wash or bathe. Lavender was popular as a linen-washing herb in Europe, no doubt due to its pleasant aroma, but it also possesses antiseptic qualities and can help to keep insects at bay. Discouraging or killing insects was paramount before the invention of glass windows and screens, a time when humans often shared the same roof with flea and lice-ridden livestock. Maude Grieve writes in A Modern Herbal (no longer especially modern, as it was written in 1931):
Dried Lavender flowers are still greatly used to perfume linen, their powerful, aromatic odour acting also as a preventative to the attacks of moths and other insects. In America, they find very considerable employment for disinfecting hotrooms and keeping away flies and mosquitoes, who do not like the scent. Oil of Lavender, on cotton-wool, tides in a little bag or in a perforated ball hung in the room, is said to keep it free from all flies.
Our noses do not betray us when they register lavender’s aroma as clean and refreshing; studies have demonstrated lavender’s inherent anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Lavender is extremely popular as a sachet herb; I like to combine it with white sage and cypress needles in mesh bags and place them in my drawers and closet. Many fast food chain restaurants have begun to place lavender sachets in their HVAC systems in lieu of chemical air fresheners. OK, that was totally a lie, but perhaps in the future it will be true….
There are thirty-nine species of lavender (Lavandula spp.), most are native to Eastern Europe, northern Africa, the Mediterranean and western Asia. Lavender is in the mint family (Lamiaceae), as evidenced by its bilabiate flowers, aromatic oils, opposite leaves and square stem. Lavender has been used medicinally for centuries as a remedy for digestive issues, headaches, grief and stress. How many herbs can claim to have flowers which inspired the name of a color?!
Lavandula angustifolia, often called English lavender even though it is native to the Mediterranean, is the most common species grown and used medicinally. The species name angustifolia means “narrow leaf.” Former scientific names include Lavandula officinalis and Lavandula vera.
Bees and many other insects frequent lavender; its flowers are often abuzz in the growing season. Lavender’s nectar yields a choice varietal honey.
Lavender is a short-lived perennial and prefers full sun with well-drained soil and ample airflow. If your native soil doesn’t drain well, try adding gravel or rocks to the soil. I add river sand (coarser sand), along with organic matter (decomposed manure), to break up our heavy clay soil. Try mulching with sand, light-colored gravel or oyster shells if you live near the sea. High humidity and cold wet winters can be problematic. Ask your local herbal nursery which varieties or cultivars grow best in your area.
Lavender can be grown from seed, but it is typically propagated from cuttings for a number of reasons. The cultivars need to be propagated asexually (cuttings) as they wont come true from seed. In addition, growing lavender from seed is much slower going than from cuttings. The seed will germinate better if stratified for one month prior to planting. Lavender prefers a more neutral pH, around 7.0 is ideal. Lavandula angustifolia is typically cold hardy to zone 6, although there are varieties that can tolerate colder temperatures- ‘Munstead’ is hardy to zone 5.
Lavender is popular as a low-maintenance xeriscape ornamental in arid climates. I was pleasantly surprised to see it growing in the median of the roadways in the Mediterranean region of Italy. There are dwarf varieties that grow 6 inches tall (12 inches in flower) but standard varieties typically grow 12 to 24 inches tall (24 to 40 inches in flower).
Lavender Materia Medica
Common Name: Lavender
Scientific name (s): Lavandula angustifolia. Other species are used medicinally, but may have a slightly different medicinal profile than outlined below. Much of the historical medicinal information from the Greeks and Libyans stems from the use of Lavandula stoechas, or French lavender.
Part used: Above ground parts in flower, or flowers
Preparation & Dosage:
- 1-2 teaspoons (approximately .8 to 1.6 grams) of the flower or herb with flower per 8 ounces of water as an infusion, drunk up to three times a day
- 1 dropper full of tincture (1:2 95%) up to three times a day
Actions: carminative, sedative, bitter, antidepressant, hypnotic, cholagogue, anti-microbial
Energetics: bitter, drying, cooling
Nervine: Lavender is a gentle sedative and can help with anxiety, stress and insomnia. It is often used in formula for the herbal treatment of depression as it has more immediate effects as compared to many of the slower-acting tonic antidepressants and adaptogens. I combine lavender with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) in tea to help lift the spirits. Lavender is also used to alleviate grief; it is often paired with the flowers of hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), rose (Rosa spp.), and mimosa (Albizia julibrissin).
Lavender is a traditional remedy for headaches; both internally as a tea and externally as an essential oil, rubbed into the temples.
Digestive: Lavender is slightly bitter and many herbalists use it as a hepatic and bile stimulant. It is also carminative and anti-inflammatory. Safe for children and the elderly, it can be used in the treatment of intestinal gas, irritable bowel syndrome, and nausea. Other gentle digestive aids, used in a similar vein, are catnip (Nepeta cataria), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis).
- Rejuvenating, skin stimulating bath – pregnancy, bed ridden
- Equal parts: Symphytum leaf, Thymus leaf, M. piperita, Lavandula flowers + Matricaria flowers
- Aura state for migraines, especially after too much sun
Notes: The flavor of lavender tea is stronger than one might expect: slightly bitter, mildly astringent and very aromatic. A little goes a long way. Try combining it with rose petals, mint, chamomile or passionflower for insomnia and decompression. I prefer the external use of essential oil or the ingestion of tea rather than the tincture, but the tincture is serviceable for those who avoid tea and essential oils.
Topical use: A strong infusion of the flowers is made into a sitz bath to heal tears in the perineum from childbirth; combine with calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis), chickweed (Stellaria media) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Lavender infusion is sometimes used as a douche for vaginal yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. Sage leaf (Salvia officinalis) and calendula (Calendula officinalis) are welcome additions to this tea. After herbal treatment for vaginal infections, insert two capsules of acidophilus low in the vaginal canal at night just before bed (so they will stay in and melt). Unsweetened live yogurt can be substituted for the acidophilus pills. Both treatments help in replenishing healthy populations of vaginal flora displaced by the anti-microbial douching and infection.
Contra-indications/ Side effects: None known, although its tonic use may be constitutionally inappropriate. For example, if you have very dry skin and mucus membranes the long-term internal use of lavender may be too drying.
Lavender essential oil is used topically as an anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, hypnotic and anxiolytic. Lavender essential oil is always in my first aid kit, car, and travel bag. It is one of the few essential oils that can be used topically without dilution, but it is always prudent to initially try a small amount of the oil on the inside of the arm and watch for 24 hours to see if there is any reaction. After cleaning out and disinfecting scrapes and cuts, I use lavender as an all-purpose anti-microbial. I also employ it to help ease the itch and swelling of mosquito and chigger bites. Lavender is applied topically on sunburn and first degree burns; I like to rub fresh aloe vera gel on the afflicted area and then add a couple drops of lavender essential oil.
Lavender essential oil can be rubbed into the temples along with diluted peppermint essential oil for headaches. A couple drops on the pillow can help ease a busy mind into dreamland. For children that have trouble relaxing into sleep, try adding two to four drops of the essential oil into the bedtime bath.
Finally, I like to use lavender essential oil to freshen up my car (can a motor vehicle really ever feel fresh?!)
Recipe for Divinely Naughty Lavender Truffles
- Total time: Timelessness.
- Active time: Well worth it.
- Calories: Practically infinite.
- Naughty or nice: You tell me.
- 1-cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/3-cup honey
- 11 ounces of 72% chocolate (weight, not volume measurement – use a scale or look on the label)
- ½-cup lavender flowers (volume –use a measuring cup)
- 5 Tablespoons butter (room temperature)
- Immersion blender or sheer brawn with whisk
- Parchment paper
- 1-cup cocoa powder and/or shredded coconut
Pull your butter out of the refrigerator. Place your cream in a double boiler. Don’t have one? Improvise with two nested pans, the bottom one filled with water and the top one lifted off the bottom by the handle. You can also place two mason jar lid rings on the bottom pot to keep the upper one aloft. Heat the cream until you see steam rising but its not yet boiling. It shouldn’t be much hotter than your favorite Hot Springs (or 115 degrees F, if you haven’t had the joy of soaking in hot springs). Add the lavender; turn off the heat and let sit for 13 minutes. Strain while warm and press out as much of the liquid as possible. You should have ¾ cup of cream, and the lavender will have absconded with the rest. (Perhaps you will reclaim it in a cup of tea).
Now: Place your lavender-infused cream and honey back in the double boiler and heat it back up to 115 F. Heat up your chocolate similarly (the chocolate needs to be just fully melted). When all is good and melted, slowly marry the cream/honey with the chocolate, while blending with an immersion blender. Both the chocolate and the cream need to be warm enough to emulsify, but not too warm or things will melt and get wonky, not truffley. Now slowly add the room temperature butter. Keep blending until your mixture resembles glossy chocolate pudding. Place in a pie pan lined with parchment paper and refrigerate for an hour.
Then: Have your cocoa powder ready in a shallow pan. Run your hands under very cold water (so they don’t melt the chocolate as you are shaping the truffles). Scoop off a teaspoon of chocolate and form into a ball. Dip the ball into the cocoa powder and place on a parchment paper lined shallow pan. Repeat. You may need to run your hands under cold water multiple times. Refrigerate the finished truffles and they should last for a few weeks (with expert discipline).
Thanks: To Jade Chenoa for her expert instruction and for sharing her tried and true truffle recipes!