Thursday, July 23, 2009

Plant profile: Lavandula

Lavandula are a genus of 39 species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to southeast India. The most common "true" species in cultivation is the Common Lavender Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender). Lavandula x intermedia or "Lavendin" (French lavender) is the most cultivated species for commercial use, since its flowers are bigger and the plants are easier to harvest, but Lavendin oil is regarded to be of a lower quality. Lavandula stoechas (Spanish lavender, shown above) is another type.

The ancient Greeks called the lavender herb nardus, after the Syrian city of Naarda. It was also commonly called nard. During Roman times, flowers were sold for 100 denarii per pound, which was about the same as a month's wages for a farm labourer, or fifty haircuts from the local barber, or in current money five trips to Whole Foods. Expensive!

Lavender was commonly used in Roman baths to scent the water; its late Latin name was lavandārius, from lavanda (things to be washed), from the verb lavāre (to wash). When the Roman Empire conquered (parts of) Britain, the Romans introduced lavender. While we Brits were more than a little perturbed by the invasion at the time, we have, since 55BC, come to appreciate lavender. Not sure if the trade off was worth it but oh well. Forgive and forget. I personally enjoy spending time in Italy now - in fact I am thinking of introducing something British in return. Deep fried Mars bars, perhaps?

Latin name: Lavandula spp. ("la-VAN-doo-lah")
Common name: Lavender
Originally from: Southern Europe and the Mediterranean.
Blooms: Well they're... uh, lavender colored! Some are more blue, some more purple, and they also come in white! The bees and butterflies love them, and of course they smell splendid. Summer through to winter, the flowers keep coming.
Light: Full, hot, baking sun, please.
Water: Drought tolerant! Hates soggy roots.
Where to find in P. Garden: Three big fat Spanish lavenders live in the middle back bed, and we also have a lavender hedge of various varieties growing at the very top edge of the garden (about 10 more plants needed.)

Essential oil of lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It was used in hospitals during WWI to disinfect floors and walls. These extracts are also popularly used as fragrances for bath products.

An infusion of lavender is claimed to soothe and heal insect bites. Bunches of lavender are also said to repel insects. If applied to the temples, lavender oil is said to soothe headaches. Lavender is frequently used as an aid to sleep and relaxation. And to cap it all off, you can ever eat it - goat's cheese is flavored with lavender, and lavender syrup can be used in baking.

What a versatile plant. I really hope our lavender hedge takes off: it will be stunning.

UPDATE June 2016:
Our lavender hedge took off and surrounded the scorching hot top of the garden for many years, with no watering! But lavenders have a shelf life and get sprawly and tired after a while. We recently ripped them out in favor of plants that can tolerate being stood on occasionally.

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