Lavender – “The Grandmother’s Herb”
Lavender is sometimes known as “the grandmother’s herb” because it has so much to offer. With the proper care and storage, lavender is a gentle, loving, “wind beneath my wings” kind of friend that will remain useful and ready until you need it. Most people become familiar with the scent of lavender through the use of the essential oil in soaps, lotion, or candles, getting its name from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash.” It clears the air, and because of that is sometimes added to ceremonial smudging blends where it becomes part of the incense. It is a clean, sometimes medicinal scent with floral notes. Some people love it right away. Others, like me, need to let it grow on them.
Early in my herbal learning days, I read an essay from a woman who always gave the gift of a pound of dried lavender as a gift to celebrate a new home or a new marriage. She listed the myriad ways that the lavender could be used. For instance:
- Scattered under the rugs to keep a room fresh.
- Stuffed into small cloth bags and placed beneath seat cushions.
- Placed in a bowl near the door to be rubbed gently, releasing their scent before welcoming guests.
- Used in cooking and teas (sparingly).
- Made into sleep pillows.
- Added to baths, or made into strong tea to relieve skin rashes and irritations.
- Placed in closets and drawers to freshen and effectively repel moths.
and on and on…
At the time, I was dubious. Lavender conjured up thoughts of little old ladies, lace curtains, and a lot of other visions that didn’t fit into my life of fingernails stained by dirt and rolling down muddy hillsides while gathering wildlings. Time passed, and I came to love lavender almost above all others. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve left behind a few treasured gardens. Lavender has always been the first plant to go into my new garden, and each time the lavender patch has grown. We usually have a row of Grosso, a row of Hidcote, and a patch up in the field of Provence. These, along with Munstead are hardy varieties, and will survive most winters here where we go into the teens for brief spurts. Given shelter from the prevailing wind, or nestled up against a sun-warmed wall, all but the very harshest areas can grow lavender. Each year we replace a few plants, but we always have lots of lavender spikes to use. It is one of our favorite herbs to distill, and we love to sit on the back deck in the evening weaving wands with the long, fragrant spikes.
A member of the large and helpful Labiatae family, with spikes in varying hues from white, to pale gray, pink, pale lavender, to the deepest purple, sailing above upright square stems, the many cultivars of Lavender are much beloved. Native to the sun-drenched stony mountain slopes of the Mediterranean, it is the quintessential plant of the English Country garden. The plants in early spring will resemble Rosemary, with flat narrow leaves that could be thought of as needles.
There are some varieties that require very mild winters with no frost. They are the frillier and most have unusually scented, lacy (pinnate) foliage and a spreading, but upright habit. Lovely, but we like the less delicate plants here.
The herb is mightily effective against moths. A friend once came into possession of the entire fleece of a shorn sheep. With a newborn, she didn’t have much time to work on it, and when she opened it to show me, moths flew into the air. We scattered a few ounces of dried lavender buds in with the wool, and the next day the moths had moved on to other, hopefully more hospitable pastures.
The Lavender Cat
When my daughter was in second grade, school was a bit much for her. To help her with the stress, I made a small cat from black satin, and stuffed it with lavender. It was about 4 inches tall, 2 inches wide, and perhaps an inch thick. She happily took it to school and kept it in her desk. A few weeks later I went to spend the morning assisting her teacher with a project, and was alarmed to walk in and find my daughter sitting with her head in her desk with the lid pulled down over her head. My alarm turned to amusement when I learned that it was between subjects and she was taking a short aromatherapy break.
At the end of the school year, she brought the lavender cat to me. The lavender inside had been so well loved that it had turned to dust. During the summer break, I opened a seam and refilled the cat so it would be ready to take on another year. A couple of years ago I found the cat during a move. Fifteen years later and the lavender still had plenty of scent when given a soft squeeze.
Medicinally, we often hear about the use of the essential oil. A scientist by the name of René-Maurice Gattefossé became known as the Father of Aromatherapy and the tale of his own healing with Lavender oil is one of the best known (and often exaggerated) stories in the field. In his 1937 book, Aromathérapie, he wrote, “The external application of small quantities of essences rapidly stops the spread of gangrenous sores. In my personal experience, after a laboratory explosion covered me with burning substances which I extinguished by rolling on a grassy lawn, both my hands were covered with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue. This treatment was followed by profuse sweating, and healing began the next day (July 1910).” However, the Lavender plant has a relatively large quantity of essential oil compared to many other plants, so that we can use it in steams, infusions, compresses, and baths without necessarily needing to extract the potent oil.
When my sister and I were learning about aromatherapy, I was the skeptic. One of us always is; it was just my turn. Both of our children were small, so we set up an experiment. We made 2 well diluted oils. For her son, she chose Lavender, and for my daughter, I chose the lovely, invigorating Grapefruit. It’s okay; you can laugh. I deserve it. That night, we each bathed our children using a bit of the oil in the water, and then gave them massages using the oil. Her son fell into a deep sleep during the massage, and slept late the next morning. My daughter decided to dance the night away, and I remember vaguely laying on the couch, groggily watching as she merrily sang little ditties at 3 am. Lesson learned, aromatherapy is real.
Lavender is best known as a remedy against insomnia, anxiety and stress, thought to slow nervous system activity allowing for a more restful sleep. Lavender calms a nervous stomach and may be helpful for relaxing and calming the whole GI system. It contains antibacterial and antiviral abilities as well. Inhaling the steam produced from an infusion in water can help with upper respiratory issues and headaches sometimes respond from inhaling the scent of the flower buds. On the skin, lavender can be soothing and healing for any sort of rash or burn, and many find relief from fungal infections and even eczema.
Lavender Laundry Sachets
- To make, add about 1/4 Cup of Lavender buds into muslin bag and tie drawstring tightly OR if using a sock, pour the buds into the toe and knot the ankle of the sock.
- To use, simply toss the sachet into the dryer with the wet clothing. Clothes will come out smelling fresh and clean. This is especially nice for drying sheets, as the lavender scent lulls one gently to relax and sleep.
Sunburn or Windburn Vinegar
- Step One
- In a quart jar add:
- 1 Cup Lavender
- 1 Cup Rose petals
- Fill jar to the top with vinegar (will be nearly 1 Quart).Steep for 2 to 4 weeks. Strain.
- Step Two
- When this is called for, either cut, peel, mash, and strain the juice from one medium aloe leaf OR use 1 T prepared Aloe gel.
- Mix the Aloe gel with 3 ounces of the vinegar mixture in a spray bottle.
- 1/2 ounce Vodka
- 3 ounces Distilled Water
- 30 drops Lavender essential oil
- The same method can be used for any number of essential oils or blends. Keeping a spray in the fridge during the summer can make for a blessedly refreshing spritz when you take a gardening break and come in for a drink.
Lavender and Myrrh Incense
- 2 parts Lavender buds
- 1 part crushed Myrrh crush it coursely so that it burns more easily and blends well with the lavender.
- Simply mix the 2 ingredients well and use a pinch at a time. It can also be simmered, but be sure to use a pan that will never be used for food again, as the myrrh will become one with the pan.
There are so many ways to enjoy lavender. Hopefully you’ll find something perfect for you to try.