Many people appreciate lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, or Lavandula officinalis) for its fragrance, and use in skin care, soaps, shampoos, and sachets for scenting clothes. The name lavender comes from the Latin root lavare, which means ‘to wash‘.
Lavender may have earned this name because it was frequently used in baths to help purify the body and spirit. However, this herb has also been used as a remedy for a range of ailments from insomnia and anxiety to depression and fatigue. Medical research has confirmed that lavender produces slight calming, soothing and sedative effects when its scent is inhaled.
The Properties of Lavender
The main chemical components of lavender oil are a-pinene, limonene, 1,8-cineole, cis-ocimene, trans-ocimene, 3-octanone, camphor, linalool, linalyl acetate, caryophyllene, terpinen-4-ol and lavendulyl acetate.
In terms of fragrances Lavender is sometimes classed as a top note, but it is also recognised as a middle note.
Research from medical and traditional herbal and horticulture companies list the therapeutic properties of lavender as:
- anti convulsant
Caution: Lavender Oil should be used sparingly when pregnant as it may result in a drop in blood pressure Allergic reaction: There are a very small number of people who are allergic to lavender and when they come into contact with it they develop an instant headache.
The four species of lavender that are most commonly grown in Australia are Lavandula stoechas, L. dentata, L. angustifolia and L. x intermedia. Lavandula stoechas is commonly known as a Spanish or Italian lavender and it has distinct flowers which have small ‘butterfly wings’ at the top of the flower head.
Dentata lavenders are found in many old gardens and are recognised by many as the lavender plant that grows tall and sometimes leggy. It flowers most of the year and is extremely hardy in dry areas.
Both of these species are popular ornamental lavenders often found in domestic gardens in South Australia. The Stoechas lavenders look fantastic in garden beds but care should be taken as they can spread into native bushland and become a pest.
The Lavandula angustifolia and L. x intermedia are grown commercially, both for oil and cut or dried flowers.
Soil and Growing Conditions
Lavender plants require lots of sun and a well-drained soil that is not too acid. Ideally, the pH should be neutral or slightly alkaline. We find a small dose of lime once a year is often beneficial. They require minimal fertiliser although occasionally a plant may show signs of iron deficiency (yellow leaves). This is easily fixed with a standard iron tonic found in most hardware stores or gardening outlets.
Lavenders do not like ‘wet feet’ and if left in areas where their roots are constantly wet such as on heavy clay soils over winter they may die. This can be prevented by planting them on mounds. Lavenders can grow well in sandy soils with minimal nutrients, but they will require some extra watering during summer for the first few years until they are well established.
Planting and Pruning
Lavender is a shrub which, if left unattended will grow leggy. The woody stems become bare and brittle, with the shrub sometimes breaking apart or splitting in the centre. To avoid this happening choose the right plant for your circumstances and make sure you prune the plant well in the first 2 summer seasons. This will create a dense bush that is less likely to split apart and will create a good shape for the future.
Stoechas and Dentata lavenders require a heavy prune at least once a year and they benefit from a light prune after each flush of flowers. We recommend that you only prune back a maximum of 1/3rd the bush each time and never cut back into the dry wood below the new growth which can usually be seen along the length of the branch.
The Angustifolia and intermedia lavenders tend to only require a prune once a year following their main flowering season.
Lavender Oil Uses
There are so many uses for lavender oil that many books have been written about lavender oil.
The good quality Angustifolia pure essential oil is used in the beauty industry, for aromatherapy, massage and is found in many skin care products. The oil can be used to make incense, special soaps, lotions, hand creams, lip balms and many other products. It is particularly useful for problematic skin conditions due to its healing properties.
Because of its calming properties the oil may be used in oil burners or be applied directly onto the skin using one drop at a time, or via massage. Beauty Therapists and massage therapists often use lavender oil as the base of many massage blends.
Sprays made from lavender are versatile and can be used as skin sprtizers, body sprays, rooms sprays to freshen up linen or when sprayed onto a pillow they can aid relaxation. Lavender sprays are great when ironing as the lavender helps cut through the creases in cotton.
Other types of lavender oil make wonderful insect repellants due to their higher amounts of camphor. They are perfectly suited to cleaning products, detergents and soaps.
Dried Lavender Uses
Typical uses include:
- sleep pillows to aid a restful nights sleep
- wheat bags to assist with relieving muscular aches and pains or to keep warm in winter
- muslin bags for room or drawer fragrance
potpourri – on its own or combined with other fragrances
- insect repellant including moths – must use high camphor variety to obtain maximum benefit
Dried lavender combined with other herbs and plants such as rosemary, cloves and citrus makes a wonderfully fragrant insect repellant.
The fragrance in lavender comes from within the flower and it needs to be moved or gently rubbed to release the fragrance. For this reason we recommend that dried lavender in muslin bags or used as potpourri be placed in a position where it will be moved around. Ideal places are in sock drawers, under pillows, hanging on coat hangers or the back of doors.
Cooking with Lavender
Lavender is a wonderful herb to add to cooking, but the key to being really successful is to make sure you only use the best lavender and in minimal quantities.
At Brayfield Park we use the dried lavender tied into a muslin bag so the lovely oil can infuse into a jam. It is well suited to dark fruits such as mulberry or plums.
As all lavenders have a natural amount of camphor in them, it is best to use the ‘Angustifolia’ lavender for cooking.