Lavender

by Mindy Yang

Lavender is an evergreen and fragrant shrub native to southern Europe, especially around the Mediterranean. The majority of the commercial crop is grown in France, Spain, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union. Some is also grown in Tasmania, and there is a minor, but flourishing, industry in Norfolk, England.

Lavender (Lavandula augustifolialofficinalis) can grow at considerable heights – one organic Provencal grower calls his product ‘Lavande 1100’ from the height in metres (3,600 ft) at which his plants are cultivated. Individual lavender plants grow up to 1 m (3 ft) in height, and can become very woody and spreading. The narrow leaves are grey and downy; the flowers are blue-grey, borne on long slender stems. The oil glands are in tiny star-shaped hairs with which the leaves, flowers and stems are covered; rub a flower or leaf between your fingers to release some oil (it has a short-lived aroma).

There are several varieties in the genus, chief among them L. angustifolia, L. stoechas and L. spica. Lavender oil comes from L. angustifolia, also known as L. officinalis (medicinal lavender) and L. vera (true or Dutch lavender, although some say this latter is a separate and compact form of L. spica). L. spica itself (spike or Old English lavender) produces aspic oil. Lavandin oil is produced by distillation of a hybrid, a cross of true lavender and aspic lavender. 

Lavender has been used since ancient times as much for its delicate perfume as for its medicinal properties. The oils of aspic and stoechas were mentioned by Dioscorides, Galen and Pliny. The Romans added lavender to their bath water (the name comes from the Latin, lavare, to wash). It was an established plant by the twelfth century as St Hildegarde awarded it a whole chapter in her medical treatise. It was also a plant grown in medicinal monastery gardens in Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Lavender plants were grown at Hitchin in Hertfordshire in 1568, being commercially cultivated after 1823. In the eighteenth century, the perfumery company, Yardley, were making lavender soaps and perfumes, with fields at Mitcham in Surrey. Like so many other plants which produce essential oils, the trade is recorded in street names in towns and cities – Lavender Hill in south London among them. Norfolk is now as famed for its lavender fields as is Provence, particularly the mountains near Grasse, in France.

All lavender varieties were once distilled together without distinction, many calling the resultant oil sticadore or oil of spike. In 1760, however, the plants’ botanic characteristics started to be classified separately.

The ancients classified lavender as a stimulant, tonic, stomachic and carminative. Matthiole, the sixteenth-century botanist, regarded lavender flowers as a most effective panacea, mentioning lavender cures for epilepsy, apoplexy and mental problems; one of his recipes to prevent fluid retention involved boiling flowers in wine and drinking two glasses of this a day. The French used to make a herbal tea with lavender, cinnamon and fennel; this would cure jaundice as well as act as a cardiac tonic. Lavender is valued for containing many of the same properties as sage, rosemary and the other members of the labiate family: as well as those indicated by the ancients above, lavender is also credited with being an antispasmodic, diuretic, antiseptic, vulnerary and circulatory plant. All in all, it is one of the most commonly used, valued and prescribed oils.

LAVENDER ESSENTIAL OIL

The flowers are steam-distilled in the fields where they have grown, and approximately 100 kg (220 lb) are needed to obtain 500 – 600g (18 – 21 lb) essential oil Lavender oil varies in color from dark yellow to dark greeny-yellow, and smells very highly scented. The content and quality of the oil depends greatly on climate, soil and altitude. The French lavender is considered better than the English, for instance, because it is richer in linalyl acetate: this gives a fruitier and sweeter note, considered pleasanter than the camphoric English lavender with its higher proportions of lineol.

An oil can also be produced from the stalks, but the scent is less subtle than that from the flowers. The principal constituents: Alcohols such as borneol, geraniol and linalool, esters such as geranyle and linalyl, and terpenes like pinene and limonene. Lavender oil also contains a high proportion of phenol, so is a strong antiseptic and antibiotic.

Dangers: Lavender is one of the least toxic oils, but care must still be taken. Lavandin is often sold as lavender, because it is cheaper to produce. No remedy will work if lavandin is inadvertently used instead of lavender. The price should be your guide: lavandin is one-third the price of lavender. There is so much adulteration, and one must be very sure of the oil’s provenance. It is however easy to make your own lavender oil.

USES
  • Lavender is the oil most associated with burns and healing of the skin. Apply pure oil on a burn and cover with gauze of muslin (to let the skin breathe). Or, if there is no oil available, get some lavender flowers or leaves from the garden, apply to the burn, and wrap as above.
  • Lavender is very effective in treating cystitis, vaginitis and leucorrhoea. Make a herbal tea with 5 ml (1 tsp) dried lavender flowers and 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water, infuse for 5 minutes, sweeten with honey and drink six times a day until the symptoms have disappeared. The tea can also be added to cold water in the bidet for the same problems, for urinary infections, and for those who have problems after intercourse (or add 3 drops of the oil to warm water in the bidet).
  • The herbal tea above is also good as a morning tonic for convalescents, as a digestive after meals, and for rheumatic conditions, and at the first appearance of a cold or ‘flu. For the latter, gargle tea with a couple of drops of the oil added and drink, at least five times a day. Because it is so gentle, lavender can be used during pregnancy.
  • To prevent circulatory problems such as varicose veins, massage the legs with an oil consisting of 3 drops cypress, 2 drops each of lavender and lemon, and 25 ml (1 fl oz) of soya oil.
  • Lavender is reputed to cure headaches (pickers used to put a Sprig under their hats).
  • Shakespeare recorded its possible aphrodisiac use: Perdita in The Winter’s Tale offers ‘hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram. .. These are flowers of middle summer, and I think they are given to men of middle age.’
  • Just as lavender can help heal burns quickly, so it can help problems such as bruises, frostbite, acne, dermatitis and swelling. Add 3 drops to 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil, and apply. Use the oil in a facial sauna for acne. Add some drops of the oil to a warm bath to help cellulite.
  • A lavender tea as above is good for oily skins, and the plant helps normalize the secretions of the sebaceous glands. Lavender water (available from chemists, or make you own) is a good toner for the skin for the same reason.
  • It is useful for oily hair (especially dark hair) as a rinse.
  • The leaves of young lavender were eaten by the Elizabethans in salads, and they have been substituted for mint in savory jelly. The plants were used as hedging in Elizabethan knot gardens, and as strewing herbs: Thomas Tusser’ list included ‘Lavender, lavender spike, lavender cotton (santolina).
  • Ladies would sew sachets of lavender into their skirts, and use the flowers in potpourris (lavender is second only in popularity to rose).
  • In the fourteenth century, Charles VI of France would sit on lavender-stuffed pillows. Lavender bags for scenting clothes and linen are still as popular today as in Elizabethan times, if lavender smelling salts and vinegars have somewhat waned.
  • Bunches of lavender were used to scrub floors, and the oil to polish furniture.
  • Even today, lavender is the most common fragrance in perfumes, soaps, furniture and floor polishes.
  • Lavender can deter dog and cat fleas and moths.


Mindy Yang
Mindy Yang

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