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 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 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
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 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.
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’.
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
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...