A popular and well known herb, lavender is a native of the mediterranean and became widely distributed throughout southern Europe. French Lavender, Lavandula stoechas, was well known and widely used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs for mummification medicinal purposes and for scented baths and soaps. Its botanical name comes from the Latin “lavare” which means to wash. In medieval times it was relatively obscure and known for its medicinal properties and religious significance.

Its fragrance was celebrated and enjoyed in the late Renaissance. The different species are not clearly differentiated and it is probable that French Lavender has been used longer for medicinal purposes.

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) was popular as a stewing herb and cosmetic from around the 12th century. French lavender is a wild plant with a scent resembling balsam with a mix of rosemary, it continued to be known as Flores stoechados until about the 18th century and was included in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1746. Eventually it was replaced by the hardier English lavender. It was not cultivated in England until around 1568. Gradually, major industries developed in England and France devoted to the growing and selling of lavender. It became a familiar sight in the knot gardens of Tudor times. flowerbeds were laid out in geometric designs and edged with lowshrubs to contain the gardens.

Queen Elizabeth I was said to have been fond of lavender conserve and she also drank lavender tea as a cure for her migraines.

Spice Description

There are over forty varieties of English lavender with blooms ranging from purple to deep blue. It has a delicious, clean fragrance and its oils are extracted to add to soaps, perfumes, sachets and insect repellants. It is also a beautiful, fragrant addition to dried flower arrangements. The leaves, stems and flowers are all medicinally valuable and it is making a comeback in the culinary world. Bouquet: strong, perfumed odor. Flavour: flowery, slightly bitter and astringent

Preparation and Storage

The spikes of lavender should be collected just before the flowers are totally open (flowers lose their aromatic properies quickly after opening) and hung to dry in the shade. If the stalks are picked at midday or just before, the oils are most concentrated in the flowers and their flavour and aroma will be at its maximum. When they are completely dry the flowers buds can be rubbed off and stored for use. The dried leaves are aromatic, but not as much as the flowers

Culinary Uses

English Lavender is the one most commonly used in cooking. It has a sweet flowery flavour with citrus notes. Dried lavender can be very potent, so use sparingly, it can be overwhelming. It is often used in combination with other herbs and spices for robust meat dishes like mutton or game. Fresh lavender flowers make a colourful and edible garnish. Desserts can be decorated with crystallized lavender flowers. Lavender is a member of the mint family and is close to rosemary, sage, and thyme, so lavender can be used in most recipes in place of rosemary. The dried flowers can be put in sugar and kept sealed for a few weeks to create a lavender scented sugar to use in cakes, custards and shortbreads. It is also one of the herbs found in Herbes de Provence and the Moroccan blend, ras el hanout.

Health Benefits of Lavender

A sedative tea can be made with newly opened flower buds that will help with any headaches and faintness. Lavender smelling salts were used to revive people who have fainted. It is also used as a cure for hoarseness and soothing sore joints. A soothing lavender salve is used for inflammations, cuts and burns. A few drops of oil in bathwater to destress or the burning of the essential oil will relax and induce feelings of well being.

Growing Lavender

English lavender does well in North American gardens, as it is the hardiest. There are 3 basic species each with several varieties. English Lavender is best known for its most fragrant oils. L. spica produces greater volume and is slightly less fragrant. French lavender is closer to Rosemary it is less sweet and not as much oils as spike lavender. They are all shrubby plants that grow in clumps, in full sun with low water and fertility requirements.

Dry conditions and low soil fertility yield maximum oils. They can grow to about 4ft tall. The leaves are green-grey, resembling rosemary, English lavender having the narrower leaves and the others with broader leaves. Lavender will grow from seed, root division or cuttings and should be set 12 to 15 inches apart. The flowers come in a wide range of colours, from grey blue to dark purple. They appear from midsummer to early autumn on stems or peduncles that are square and woody at base. They lose their aromatic properies quickly after opening.

Plants may rebloom if flowers spikes are deadheaded soon after flowering. The greyish brown seeds which form later are difficult to germinate. The plants can be trimmed right back in the early spring to keep them compact. It is a great addition to the garden, with its strong clean fragrance and wispy and delicate foliage. Once you learn how to grow lavender, it will help you keep moths away and attract bees!

Other Names

French: Lavande
Greek: Levanta Italian: Lavanda
Spanish: Lavanda, Alhucema, Espliego
Turkish: Lavânta çiçegi

Scientific Name

English Lavender: Lavendula Angustifolia
French Lavender: Lavandula stoechas Family: Labiatae

Lavender Recipes

Herbes de Provence

Lavender shortbread

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp. dried lavender flowers
  • 1 cup self-rising flour

Cream butter and sugar; add egg. Mix in lavender and flour. (Flower buds can be ground with a little sugar in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder.) Place small mounds on greased cookie sheet and bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown in color.

Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay