The following is an excerpt from POWER PLANTS: Simple Home Remedies You Can Grow, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; to be released April 2014
Native to the Mediterranean, lavender is well known for its sweet, penetrating aroma. Many soaps, perfumes, detergents, and cleaning agents contain lavender, and the association of lavender with cleanliness goes back some time. The Romans used lavender oils for bathing and scenting the air. Indeed, the Latin root lavare means “to wash.” Today lavender is probably best known for its use in aromatherapy. Its essential oil is extracted from the plant’s tiny purple flowers.
Lavender has been used therapeutically for pain, infection, relaxation, and sedation for many centuries. It is believed to have strong anti-anxiety effects, and there is some promising research to back this up. The active constituents of lavender are its volatile oils and hundreds of other compounds, including perillyl alcohol, camphor, limonene, tannins, and flavonoids.
Besides its relaxing effects, lavender also possesses antibacterial properties. Studies have shown that it acts against certain strains of strong bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci, both of which can be spread in hospitals.
My mother loves lavender! Perhaps it’s the fragrance, or her love of French provincial decor, of which lavender is a big part. I think anyone can love lavender for both its functional and aesthetic appeal. It’s a beloved perennial used in formal borders, planted in groupings, or arranged in rows in herb and vegetable gardens, and adored for its showy bluish-purple flowers and fragrant foliage.
The biggest challenge with lavender is finding the perfect spot; where winters are harsh and summers are humid, lavender will struggle. But in the right location it will survive and thrive for many seasons.
Common Varieties: Lavan-dula angustifolia (sometimes called English lavender) is the most popular perennial variety. Hybrid varieties (L. × intermedia) are also called lavadins. Not all lavender cultivars are the traditional purplish blue; others are white, pink, or purple.
Select varieties hardy for your region, or look for annual varieties (which may be other Lavandula species) for containers. Look for healthy plants free of browning leaves, with deep silvery-green foliage and no flowers. Transplants in bloom have been forced and will not provide the best results in the first season.
Plant in spring after the risk of frost. Select a site with well-drained soil, lots of sun, and shelter from harsh winds, especially in winter. Airflow during the growing season is vital to minimize disease, so ensure adequate spacing between plants. Lavender hates having “wet feet.” That’s a gardening term for roots that stay wet for lengthy periods. In clay soils, where drainage is poor, lavender is almost impossible to grow. Plant it instead in raised beds or containers.
Lightly prune lavender in early spring, removing any dead or sickly looking stems. Water deeply and infrequently, ensuring the plant dries between waterings. Keep free of weeds. Lavender is an arid plant that hates humidity, so it may struggle in hot, sticky summers.
Lavender will thrive in poor soils (rocky or sandy) and rarely requires fertilizer. When amending soil to increase drainage, do not add too much peat moss, as this will increase acidity.
In colder areas, cover in late fall or early winter with clean straw or leaves free of any disease. Remove this covering in early spring after snow has melted.
Harvest and Store
Timing is key when harvesting lavender. Both the blooms and the buds contain essential oil, but if you harvest while the plant is in full bloom, most of the flowers and buds will drop from the stems after drying. It’s best to harvest when only about a quarter to half of the flowers on a stem are in bloom. Tie lavender into bundles and hang in a dry place, out of direct light (see “Drying Herbs at Home” on page 365). After drying, discard the stems and leaves and store the flower heads in airtight containers.
Put It to Work
Ready to use lavender? Stock up on the essential oil!
• Agitated? This smells like relief!
Add a few drops of lavender oil to a piece of cotton cloth and pin it inside your jacket or pants. You’ll smell it throughout the day! Studies of those who suffer severe dementia in nursing homes found that lavender aromatherapy may help decrease agitated behaviour. The theory is that this will not only calm you down, but also calm those around you!
• Burnt? Lavender is soothing and antibacterial! Early research suggests lavender oils may have antibiotic activity, and that pain intensity and unpleasantness may be reduced after treatment with topical lavender therapy. If you’ve suffered a minor burn from cooking or by open flame, add 5 drops of lavender essential oil to ½ teaspoon of olive oil or vegetable oil (as a carrier) and apply to the wound up to 3 times daily.
• Suffer anxiety? Try lavender aromatherapy! The traditional use for lavender oil is as aromatherapy for relaxation. Several small studies report that it helps to relieve anxiety. Add a few drops to your pillow before bed or simply rub a drop behind each ear like a perfume: The scent will make its way to your olfactory bulb, where it will have a positive and relaxing effect on your nervous system.
• Decreased mental alertness? A few drops are all you need!
Research demonstrates that lavender oil helps maintain mental alertness and thus prevents deterioration of performance. Try adding a drop on the back of each hand when you’re at your computer. Waving your hands around on your keyboard is enough to deliver the medicinal effects of the scent.
• Poor sleep due to back pain? Get dual action relief!
Using lavender oil along with acupressure for short-term relief of lower back pain has been proven effective. Apply 2 drops of lavender on the back of each hand at the web between the thumb and index finger (this is known as the L14 acupressure point). Find the highest point of the muscle when the thumb and index fingers are held together. Next, squeeze the point using the thumb and index finger of your opposite hand. While you press and massage deeply on the point, try to relax and breathe deeply for counts of five, hold for counts of seven, and breathe out through pursed lips for counts of eight.