L for Lavender

A Mediterranean plant that happily roots itself in the wild among the hot rocks and thin soils of the Provencal maquis, lavender is a cottage classic. And it’s easy to capture its natural aroma: simply cut a bunch of flower stems immediately before flowering, bind them and let them dry in the sun.

The plant, a member of the mint family ( Lamiaceae ), earned its name from the Romans’ practice of steeping scented bundles in the villa bathing water: lavare means to bathe or wash.Yet despite its languid, heavy scent, this is a fire plant. Certain species are so packed with volatile oils that, like some Australian eucalyptus, they will spontaneously combust in the summer heat. Only after such a burn will these particular seeds germinate, which explains why commercial growers have developed a ‘smoke water’ to persuade them to germinate in the nursery.

Lavender oil is present in all parts of the silver-leaved and white- to blue-flowered plants, with the exception of the roots. The long, thin leaves and the oils provide the plant with its protection in the wild, enabling it to survive midsummer droughts, rendering it unappetizing to most grazing animals and attracting potential pollinating insects with its heavy scent. (Bees that browse on lavender produce an especially rich-flavoured honey.)

Lavender was used both for culinary and medicinal purposes by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs. Traditionally grown close to the laundry, and used as a strewing plant to freshen the floors, lavender was a natural insecticide. In the twelfth century the German abbess Dame Hildegard of Bingen noted its effectiveness against fleas and head lice. Yet Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) warns in his Complete Herbal: “the chemical oil drawn from lavender, usually called oil of spike [it was known in India as ‘spikenard’], is of so fierce and piercing a quality, that it is cautiously to be used.” It didn’t stop him advocating it for just about everything from “falling sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady” to “cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings”.

(Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, 2010)