Lavender: The Joy of Growing and Using a Favorite, Fragrant Herb

Lavender: The Joy of Growing and Using a Favorite, Fragrant Herb

Lavender is a favorite, fragrant herb that fits well into any cottage garden and has many uses in our homes and kitchens.

By Rachel McLeod

Is there any herb more popular than lavender?  Its clean fragrance has been with us from earliest times. The Romans used it in their baths and the name lavender comes from lavare meaning to wash. So in the days when soap was a luxury, and for the rich only, other people washed in water made fragrant by the addition of lavender which grew in every cottage garden.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, lavender was used extensively not only for its scent but in cooking. As Gerard in his herbal advises “the young and tender sproutings are kept in pickle and reserved to be eaten with meat.” Queen Elizabeth I liked lavender with her meat and her favorite was a lavender conserve. She also drank lavender tea as a cure for her migraines.

In the Kitchen

Using lavender for cooking could well be done by anyone with a mature lavender bush. 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 cake, buns or custards. And of course the desserts can be decorated with crystallized flowers.

This fragrant herb is not only for sweet dishes. It is also a savory herb. I always add it when I am making Herbs Of Provence, the wonderful French spicy mixture of rosemary, savory, and thyme…often with lavender and basil added. It has a particular affinity for lamb; in fact, in France lambs were grazed on lavender whenever possible. Grazing on it may not be possible in North America, but adding its stems to the barbecue and sprinkling the flowers on to the roast will help to impart the flavor to the meat.

Be careful when cooking with lavender only to use a few flowers, as too many will make the food bitter. Always wash them first and do not use if there is any danger of them having been sprayed with insecticide.

Other Lavender Uses

As an herb, lavender has many uses. The flowers scent our closets and keep moths away from our clothes but also they have medicinal uses. Queen Elizabeth I was quite right to use lavender tea for her migraine. It is a nerve tonic and lavender tea will help with any headaches, faintness and sunstroke. The spikes of lavender should be collected just as the florets are opening and hung to dry. When the spike is completely dry the flowers can be rubbed off and stored for use. The leaves can be dried too but they are not as fragrant. I have a hedge that not provides me with plentiful lavender cuttings but is a lovely landscape feature.

Growing

There are different species of lavender. The one we know best are various varieties of Lavendula angustifolia. A seed catalogue will list them but Hidcote purple and Dwarf Munstead are two small, attractive ones that I like;  some of the others grow rather tall and wide – maybe a metre in both directions.  The French types – L.stoechas and L. dentata – are both very attractive and sweetly scented but are not hardy here so would have to be grown as a house plant in winter.

If it is given the right conditions, lavender is easy to grow. It is most important to plant it where it is well drained. It will winterkill for certain if it has damp feet. Also, it prefers a slightly alkaline soil. Wherever it is in the garden, its scent and purple spikes will be attractive. I have a small hedge of lavender leading to the front door and in addition there are clumps scattered in areas  throughout the garden. Although it prefers full sun, it will take some hours of shade.

Pruning is always a subject of discussion. When it is young, the plant will not need more than a gentle trim in spring to tidy it up and remove dead stems. As the bush grows bigger and older, it needs more drastic cutting so that it will form new growth which will over winter much better than very old wood. My hedge is about eight years old and I keep the back of it well clipped so that it does not invade other plants in the bed. I also remove any old, woody, and straggly stems. Both of these operations promote new growth and take place in the spring and again after flowering. The smaller varieties such as Hidcote and Munstead need less pruning.

Although lavenders can live for many years, a very cold winter without snow cover could kill an old plant so it is a good idea to propagate some young ones to substitute if necessary.

This can be done either by collecting seed (if you are fortunate the plant may self-seed) or by taking cuttings which root quite easily or by burying a plant in sandy soil and leaving for some months when the stems will have grown roots and can be severed to make new plants. This is just a rather exaggerated way of layering and of getting a lot of young new plants without much trouble.

This article first appeared in Natural Life Magazine’s Herb Garden column. You can read more of Rachel McLeod’s columns here.