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2007 - Lavender

Lavender in Your Kitchen and Throughout Your Home
Lavender Cookbook By Carrie B. Wilkey

Lavender flowers and leaves have been used as herbs for at least 3,500 years. For more than 500 years, lavender has been a quintessential plant in gardens throughout Europe and North America. Yet, the commercial production of lavender is less than 100 years old. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region and is found growing wild there, but is cultivated throughout the world.

Lavender is part of the genus Lavendula, a member of the mint family, and contains nearly 200 different varieties, including naturally occurring and cultivated hybrids. The number of varieties continues to grow each year, as commercial growers cross-breed existing species, creating new hybrids.

Most lavender falls under four different species:

  • Lavendula angustifolia, commonly referred to as English Lavender
  • Lavendin x intermedia, a hybrid of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia, also known as Provence Lavender
  • Lavendula lanata, or Wooly Lavender
  • Lavendula stoechas, or French/Spanish Lavender

History of Lavender Uses
Throughout most of its history, until well into the 19th century, lavender was used both as a culinary herb and as a medicinal plant. Today, its principal uses are in cosmetics and perfume, potpourris, and wreaths, although lavender is once more gaining popularity in culinary use. In the U.S., lavender is widely used as a decorative plant.

Lavender has long been dried and used to scent linens and as a moth repellent. Historically, linen and clothing were often thrown over large lavender bushes to dry and absorb the sweet fragrance of the plant. In the mid-16th century, people often distilled a variety of “sweet waters” including lavender, rosemary, and sage to scent or deodorize linens and clothing.

The English word “lavender” is generally believed to be derived from the Latin word “lavere,” which means, “to wash”. The Romans used lavender in their laundry, as well as for washing in the famous Roman baths.

Some European royals, including Queen Elizabeth I of England and King Louis XIV of France, were great aficionados of lavender. Queen Elizabeth regularly imbibed in lavender tea, and King Louis carried sprigs of lavender in his pockets and washed with lavender water.

In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, lavender was strewn over the floors of castles and cottages for use as a disinfectant and deodorant. It was also one of many medicinal herbs grown in gardens. Use of lavender was highly respected during the Great Plague of London in the 17th Century, when individuals tied bunches of lavender to their wrists to protect themselves from the Black Death.

In Victorian times, certain flowers had specific meanings because flower selections were limited. People often used more symbols and gestures to communicate, than words. In the past, lavender meant distrust, suspicion, or refusal. In modern times, lavender symbolizes devotion, consistency, and loyalty.

Popular Types and Cultivation of Lavender
In general, lavender is a bushy, branching shrub. Colors range from whites and pinks to all shades of blue and purple. Leaves are smooth-edged, narrow and lance-shaped, silvery gray to olive green in color and up to two inches long. Some older varieties of lavender plants grow up to 3 or 4 feet in height and 2-3 feet in width. Under normal weather conditions, lavender begins to bloom in June.

There are many types of lavender, and all have highly aromatic foliage and flowers that attract bees and butterflies in mid summer. Modern compact varieties are among the most popular types being suited to smaller gardens than many of the older varieties that can grow quite large. All varieties benefit from being trimmed occasionally, especially just after flowering to keep the bush compact and in good health.

Flowers can be picked for drying as they come into bloom. Use the flowers as flavorings in your favorite recipes or dry for use in potpourri or sachets. When cutting for color, lavender should be cut as the first flowers begin to open. When cutting for fragrance, the oil content actually increases if you wait until the majority of the flower buds have opened. To use fresh, pick flowers that are in their prime. Wash and dry in the same manner you would leaf lettuce.

It is best to start with plants or cuttings, as starting lavender from seed requires up to 30 days to germinate. The easiest means of propagation is from cuttings.

Lavenders prefer sunshine (at least 8 hours) and well-drained alkaline soil. Good drainage is crucial to the success of your lavender plants. Be sure to add an occasional infusion of compost for best results. Some plants may not bloom until the second year, and may take up to three years to reach full size. Lavender may also be grown in containers and is a good companion to thyme.

Once lavender flowers, prune to encourage new growth. Lavender flowers may be dried to extend enjoyment of their beauty and scent. Harvest lavender just before the last flowers on a stalk are fully open. A mature plant can be trimmed back by one-third its size. Be careful not to prune too late in the season, or you risk losing your plants over the winter.

Always mulch your plants as soon as the ground freezes and remove it in mid-spring, when the snow has melted. All lavenders should be pruned in the spring. Remove frost-damaged shoots and shape the plants just after they leaf out in the spring.

English Lavender
Lavendula angustifolia is the Latin name for what is commonly known as English Lavender. Botanically, there is no such thing as English Lavender. Other plants falling under this name include L. officinalis, L. vera, L. delphinenis, and L. Spica. English lavender is a stockier plant with a full flower. These varieties of lavender are most likely to survive Wisconsin winters, but must be carefully planted and tended. English Lavender is usually listed as hardy to Zone 5 in most books, catalogs, and web sites.

“Munstead” and “Hidecote” lavender varieties are recommended for growing in southern Wisconsin. Munstead grows to a height of 18 inches and a diameter of about 24 inches. Hidecote grows as tall as 24 inches and 30 inches in diameter.

White Lavender
White Grosso Lavender is a very old variety of true lavender and has been used in gardens for over 400 years. It is highly perfumed, and is perfect for fresh or dried bouquets and is used for perfumes. This variety grows best in warmer climates.

Spike Lavender
The next most common lavender for commercial use is called Spike Lavender (L. latifolia), also known as Portuguese Lavender. It has dark purple, pineapple-shaped flower heads and dark green, grass-like leaves. It grows low and wide and may layer its stems, allowing one plant to cover a lot of ground. It can also be pruned off the ground and shaped for a topiary effect.

French Lavender
French Lavender (L. dentata) is not culinary lavender and it doesn’t have the English Lavender fragrance. It is a large plant and blooms from spring to frost and has a nice clean smell. It should be pruned in mid-summer and again in late fall. These lavenders look a bit different than more traditional ones. Their flower spike has a pinecone looking shape. They make a beautiful landscape plant that blooms early, and for many varieties, throughout the summer. It is collected and processed for oil used in perfume.

Spanish Lavender
Known as L. stoechas, and sometimes called French Lavender, is a dense, busy shrub with green-gray foliage and dark purple flowers. Spanish Lavender blooms profusely in the spring, and when it finishes it needs a good pruning. The result will be an attractive and fragrant shrub throughout the rest of the year. Spanish Lavender is a suitable choice for those who live in hot, humid climates.

Wooly Lavender
This Lavendula lanata boiss variety is prized for its silvery foliage. The leaves and stems often have soft fuzz on them, hence the nickname of wooly lavender. Wooly lavender has fragrant flowers and is attractive to birds, bees, and butterflies. It looks great planted with dark green foliage plants like rosemary or lemon verbena.

Culinary Uses / Cooking with Lavender
Pulverized lavender flowers add a unique flavor to jellies, honeys, meats, salads, and desserts. The flower looks beautiful on any dessert, especially chocolate. There are a thousand other uses for lavender, from throwing it in your bath for muscle relaxation to putting it in furniture oil.

It is usually English Lavender (L. angustifolia) buds that are used in cooking. There are two main types of lavender used for cooking: English Lavender and Provence, a hybrid. L. angustifolia has a light, sweet smell, whereas other varieties are high in camphor oil, which is slightly bitter in food and is treated by the body as a toxin.

The potency of lavender flowers increases with drying. In cooking, use 1/3 the quantity of dried flowers to fresh. The key to cooking with lavender is to experiment – start out with a small amount of flowers, and add more as you go. Adding too much lavender to your recipe can be like eating perfume and will make your dish bitter. Because of the strong flavor of lavender, the secret is that a little goes a long way.

Use lavender stems in lieu of metal or wood skewers for grilling small pieces of meat. Soak the stems in water for five minutes before skewering the meat and placing on the grill.

Lavender is not just for sweet treats. It is a wonderful addition to savory meat dishes as well. The traditional way is by using an herb mixture called Herbes de Provence, a combination that includes lavender and other herbs. Lavender is best used with fennel, oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, and savory.

Add fresh or dried lavender to water to create an infusion. Strained, this makes a nice addition to teas, lemonade, or other summer drinks.

The lavender flowers add beautiful color to salads. Lavender can also be substituted for rosemary in many bread recipes. The flowers can be put in sugar and sealed tightly for a couple of weeks, then the sugar can be substituted for ordinary sugar for a cakes, breads or custards. Grind the lavender in an herb or coffee grinder, or mash it with mortar and pestle.

Do not purchase lavender to be used in cooking from a craft shop unless specified that it can be used for food. Culinary lavender grown for non-food use may contain high levels of toxic pesticides.

Medicinal Uses
Old herbal books and other resources have always sung the praises of lavender. Lavender has long been used in perfumes, but its history as a healing herb is probably just as extensive. Famous 17th Century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, claimed that lavender was well suited for headaches, cramps, convulsions, and even faintings.

Lavender has been used for centuries for health and healing and because of its soothing, relaxing properties, has become known as the “Mothering Oil”. It has many practical uses today that are just as effective as those described in history and folklore and is the most versatile of essential oils. Its many benefits include:

  • Calming, soothing and relaxing
  • Antidepressant (aromatherapy)
  • For skin care
  • Soothes irritations
  • Reduces insomnia and flatulence
  • Activating the immune system
  • Good for first aid and as an insect repellent

For inhalation purposes, boil 2 cups of water, add 2 drops of essential oil, and inhale the steam for aromatherapy and to calm the nerves.

Externally, lavender oil is one of the safest essential oils and can be used full-strength on the skin. It can be applied directly to cuts, scrapes, wounds, burns, insect stings, rashes, muscle aches, rheumatism, arthritis, cold sores, canker sores, blisters, bruises, athlete’s foot, and rubbed directly into the temples in case of headache or migraine.

Lavender is conveniently available in essential oil form, and is so useful that it has often been called ‘first-aid in a bottle’. It is one of the few essential oils that can be applied directly to the skin undiluted. The oil is antiseptic and anti-bacterial, and can be applied directly to burns and stings, where it will cool the pain. It will stimulate blood flow to the affected area, which may aid healing.

Lavender oil rubbed into the temples can quiet a headache, even in some cases halt a migraine if it hasn’t taken too firm a hold. Massaged into the neck and shoulder muscles, it can relieve tension headaches. The oil is analgesic (pain-lessening); rub it into painful joints for relief from arthritis symptoms, or into sore muscles.

Lavender essential oil should not be ingested or added to any food or beverages. It can be toxic if taken internally.

Most people agree that the scent is calming, and can be used to reduce anxiety. A few drops in an aroma diffuser such as an aroma lamp (a small bowl of water over a tea light), will infuse the air with the scent of lavender and provide balance to overwrought emotions.

Other Uses for Lavender
Lavender makes an ideal ingredient in homemade cleaning solutions, sleep pillows, bath salts and powders, drawer sachets and much more. It can also be combined with cedar and used a moth repellent in your closets and drawers.

At bath time, add a few drops of lavender essential oil to your bath water for a relaxing and tension-relieving bath. Add essential oil to some water in a spray bottle for a refreshing and cooling sensation, or to use as an insect repellent.