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Knot Garden - Herbs - The Lavender family  Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavandula Stoechas

The Knot Garden

Insights into Herbs and their uses

The Lavender family – Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavandula Stoechas

When Nicholas Culpepper wrote his famous herbal he concluded that lavender was so well known that there was no need to describe it – and I tend to agree.

But for the sake of anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of being introduced to this charming plant, it is of shrubby habit, invariably has a grey-green tinge to its narrow, highly aromatic foliage and characteristically bears spikes of oil-rich flowers in shades of purple, white, carmine and... well... lavender!

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The lavender family – Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavandula Stoechas

Lavandula Angustifolia

The variety most widely grown in Britain is Lavandula angustifolia, but the French lavender - L. stoechas – with less showy ‘flowers’ but charming, characteristic little ‘mouse ear’ bracts is becoming increasingly popular.

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The lavender family – Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavandula Stoechas

Lavandula Stoechas

The Greeks and Romans used it to perfume their bathwater, Tuscans carried it as a talisman to protect against the evil eye, ancient Egyptians employed it in the mummification process and in North Africa it was thought to offer protection against domestic violence. It is also believed to be the ‘Spikenard’ of the bible, used by Mary Magdalene to wash Jesus’ feet.

It’s also been used as protection against witchcraft, being fashioned into garters for Irish brides for this purpose and burnt on St John’s Eve (24th June) bonfires in Spain and Portugal for its anti-witch qualities. I’m not sure then that I should confess that I struggled to grow it successfully for ages...

I choose to blame the wet, west Wales climate, for ironically, lavender - named from the Latin verb ‘lavare’: ‘to wash’ – has a deep antipathy for water and used to succumb regularly to our mild but damp winters. I think I’ve cracked it in recent years though, for I now have thriving bushes of both English and French varieties in their fourth season and many up-and-growing youngsters...

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The lavender family – Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavandula Stoechas

The secret was to go out and invest in some porous containers - large earthenware pots, wicker baskets and wooden troughs - which I filled with ordinary soil from the garden and positioned all along the old stone wall that runs the length of my vegetable and herb garden. Built by my grandfather around 80 years ago, the wall faces west and warms through the day to act as a giant storage heater, as well as offering some shelter from the worst of the wet and chilly easterly winds. And along it my lavenders positively beam... as, now, do I.

Bees adore it, and flies dislike it – indeed if you’re being particularly plagued by flying nasties when working outdoors, rubbing some of the herb onto your skin or sticking a sprig into your hat or buttonhole acts as a good repellent.

Lavender

I also noticed in the height of summer that the cat seemed to favour one of the pots as an unlikely evening perch – and who can blame her, with the warmth of the wall to snuggle against and such fragrance to lull her to sleep?

As well as appealing to felines it’s said to beckon benevolent fairies and for this purpose – as well as its calmative effects – was often used to perfume birthing rooms where it was also thought to stimulate ‘emergence’.

The Knot Garden Insights into Herbs and their uses The lavender family – Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavandula Stoechas

In the ‘floral language of love’ it traditionally urges silence, whereas to dream of lavender is said to predict a reunion. Somewhat confusingly it is variously said to act as an attractant of suitors, as an aphrodisiac and as a protection for chastity! EXACTLY why then it has it traditionally been associated with older ladies? Perhaps they know something..? But what?!!!

It has had, of course, countless cosmetic, perfumery and household uses over the centuries, from gentle face-wash to strewing herb for floors, where it would both perfume the air as it was trodden underfoot and deter parasites of mice and men.

Medicinally, lavender’s action on both body and mind is tranquil. It is used to soothe upset stomachs, toothache, neuralgia and headaches as well as to calm the nerves, treat insomnia and ease anxiety. I wonder if it is co-incidental then that Eurostar were recently offering peach and lavender clafoutis as a trans-channel pudding?

Lavender

Back in more traditional kitchens, lavender flowers has been used to perfume oil, vinegar and sugar, and are also mixed in small quantities with honey to create a fragrant spread. The leaves, although bitter in flavour, are often used in savoury dishes in Southern Europe and I understand from a friend who picked some mistaking it for Rosemary that it compliments roast lamb well.

With so many potential uses, it’s as well then that regular picking is very good for the plant. I try to keep up with dead-heading and am usually rewarded with repeat waves of flowering, the French variety in particular blooming regularly from April to November. When I’m reading in the garden I’ll also often snap off a stem to use as a bookmark – or pick a few sprigs to decorate a gift or pop in with a letter. Somehow e-mail attachments just aren’t the same...

Even in the depths of winter, a still, sunny afternoon will release waves of quiet scent across the nose-pinching cold and I love tiny sprigs of its silver foliage mixed with violets scrumped from the chill, damp of the quarry.

And any sprigs I have left after pruning are popped into a container here and there where they root very easily... Potty about lavender? Yes, guilty as charged...

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