Lavender – Lavandula Officinalis – Labiatae family history, medicinal, growing, shortbread by Andy Hamilton

The name Lavender is derived from the Latin word ‘lava’, meaning to wash. The common variety (English Lavender/Lavendula Vera) can grow to over 3 feet tall (1m). It is indigenous to mountain regions of the countries bordering the western half of the Mediterranean. Over the last few decades the popularity of this plant has even stretched over to Australia where is is grown as a perfume plant.

History

This aromatic herb was known by the ancient Greeks as Nardus, taken from Naarda a city of Syria, they also commonly called it Nard.

During Roman times the blossoms were sold for 100 denarii per pound, which is about the same as months wage for a farm labourer or 50 haircuts for the local barber! The Romans used lavender in their bath water and along with many other herbs, they introduced it to Britain.

During the times of the plague the glove makers of Grasse would sent their leathers with lavender oil and many seemed to stay plague free. I would assume that there is some truth in this story as the plague was passed around by fleas and lavender is known to repel them.

Medicinal

Lavender was used as a condiment to flavour foods and people thought that it would ‘comfort the stomach’.

Lavender oil can be used to prevent faintness, nervous palpitations, spasms and colic.

It can also be used to prevent flatulence and to induce appetite

Lavender as I have mentioned in the history section was also used in the 17th century to ward of the plague.

Lavender Essence applied to the gums is alleged to prevent toothache and can also be applied to alleviate rheumatic pain and sprains.

Growing Lavender

You can grow lavender from seed, but the only species that will grow ‘true’ is Lavender Stoechas. Seeds are best sown in Autumn (fall) according to Jekka’s book of herbs, and should be sown in a seed tray, covered with Perlite and kept with a bottom heat of 4-10°C (40-50°F). The seedling should then be wintered in a cold green house and planted out in early summer when a good root ball has developed. According to a modern herbal seeds can be sown directly into the ground in April.

All my literature seems to agree that Lavender is best grown from cuttings. ( I cheated and bought fully grown plants). Softwood cuttings should be taken in the spring from non-flowering stems then planted into a ‘gritty’ compost mix. Once rooted the young plants should be ‘wintered’ in a cold greenhouse or cold frame.

I personally planted my lavender plants to repel insects and so I have planted them on alternate rows on my allotment. However, if you want to a lavender hedge plant the them about 30cm (12inches) apart.

In the spring prune the stems back that have been killed off in the winter, this will encourage new growth. Once the plant has flowered in the Summer give another trim. In the Autumn (Fall) cut back the ensuring that you do not cut into the old wood.

Some Varieties will need protection in the winter months and most will if you have harsh winters. If this is the case it is perhaps worth considering growing Lavender plants in containers. Pretty easy in containers just keep water apart from in the winter months when you should allow the compost to go almost totally dry, before returning to watering in the spring.

Recipes

I must admit when I first heard that lavender could be used in cooking I did not believe it but it has been used for a thousands of years.

Shortbread

  • 160g Soft Unsalted butter
  • 80g caster Sugar
  • 2 tsps Lavender Flowers
  • 160g Plain flour
  • 80g Corn Flour

Beat together the butter, sugar and lavender flowers until you get a pale and creamy mixture. Next sift in the flours and work into a smooth dough.

Put the mixture into a greased tin and press down to make an even layer. Prick with a fork ensuring that you are touching the bottom of the tin with each prick.

Stick it in a preheated oven for 20-25 mins at 170c (gas mark 3, 325f).

Take out the oven and sprinkle with sugar and shape them into fingers. Allow to cool then enjoy.

By Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton
Andy Hamilton
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