Lavender – An Ancient Herb with Healing Properties

February Herb/Edible Flower of the Month: Lavender

English LavenderHistory:
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean mountains and coast. The word lavender comes from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash”. The ancient Greeks and Romans used lavender for its fresh clean scent and also for its healing and soothing properties as well as its uses as a culinary herb. These uses have persisted throughout history. The Romans took lavender to Great Britain and Queen Elizabeth I was known to have used lavender in cooking as well as for treating migraines. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that lavender production became commercialized and the dried flowers became available in the US.

Lavender prefers a sunny location and light, well drained soil. Lavender germinates very slowly so the easiest way to grow is from transplants and cuttings. Some experts suggest cutting off the flowering stems as they appear the first year so the energy goes to the roots. Annual pruning of up 1/3-1/2 plant is recommended to keep from getting woody. Lavender is marginally hardy to Zone 5. Plants should be mulched well in the fall or taken indoors for the winter in cold climates. Lavender is considered drought-tolerant when mature but needs regular watering until established. It is also disease-resistant and not too attractive to animals although bees are attracted to the fragrant flowers and bee hives are often placed close-by. Lavender produces dozens of blooms on a single plant in late summer. Plants are ready for harvesting when the bottom third of the flower head is blooming and the dew has dried off the spikes. It can be kept fresh in water for 3 days if water is changed and stems are trimmed daily. It may also be hung in bunches to dry for 8-10 days in a dark spot with good air circulation. Once dry, buds should be removed from stems and sealed in blue or brown glass for storage.

Lavender is one of the most useful culinary flowers and can be used fresh or dried. The lemon-perfume flavor of lavender enlivens both sweet and savory dishes. Traditionally lavender buds are used in “Herbes de Provence”. Leaves and flowers can be steeped for making jellies, sorbets, custards and ice cream. The flowers can be used to make a simple syrup to drizzle on poached pears or an almond tart. Lavender can be used in lemonade and vinegars and to flavor sugar for sweetening teas or to make cookies. The dried lavender stems can be used as grilling sticks for meat, poultry or fish. The lower camphor and resin content of the ‘Provence’ variety is said to make the best culinary lavender although some chefs prefer ‘English’(augustifolia).

Information presented by Nancy Klammer.