TOP USES FOR THIS POPULAR HERB
WRITTEN BY CATRIONA TUDOR ERLER
“I long to be in a house where the sheets smell of lavender,” wrote Izaak Walton, the seventeenth-century author of The Compleat Angler. Indeed, lavender has been valued for centuries for its ornamental, culinary, aromatic, crafting, and medicinal qualities.
Although there are currently forty-five different classified species of lavender and more than 450 varieties, the three most commonly grown are English (Lavandula angustifolia), Spanish (L. stoechas), and French (L. dentata). There also is a plant called lavandin, a sterile, hybrid cross between English and Portuguese lavender (L. latifolia), which is valued for its essential oil.
Despite its common name, English lavender is native to the Mediterranean region. It’s an excellent garden plant, also used for cooking, crafts, potpourri, and essential oils. The hardiest of the lavender species it survives temperatures down to -20 degrees F.
Native to the hot, dry climate of the Mediterranean region, Spanish lavender is hardy only to USDA climate zone 8. It’s similar in form to English lavender, but the flower is charmingly different. Instead of flower spikes, each pineapple-shaped flower head is topped with upright bracts that resemble rabbit ears.
French lavender is distinguished by the toothed edges of each leaf and its slightly wooly texture. The frost-tender shrubs are the earliest and longest blooming of these three lavender species. It isn’t useful as a culinary plant, though; it tastes of camphor.
A drought-tolerant plant, lavender needs full sun and well-drained, nutrient-poor soil. Fertilizing lavender too heavily may cause it to grow excess foliage and never flower—or even kill the plant. Fertilize lavender in early spring by laying down an inch of good compost around the plant. That will improve the soil and provide plenty of nutrients for the coming season.
Acid soil will kill lavender. It can take time, but after a few years lavender plants in low pH soil will begin dying off. If your soil is acidic, amend it with lime to bring the pH closer to neutral. Another lavender killer is overwatering. Water plants deeply to promote root growth and wait for the soil to dry before watering again. Short, frequent watering cycles result in unhealthy roots that may rot.
To promote new growth and flowering, prune plants in early spring to ensure a full, floriferous plant. During the summer, clip faded blooms to encourage repeat blooming.
Cooking It Up.
Lavender lends a subtle floral flavor to sweet and savory dishes and is useful as a pretty garnish. You can use the leaves, stems, and flowers, either fresh or dried, but the flowers are the most potent for giving dishes the signature lavender flavor.
Opinions vary on the best lavender varieties for cooking. Sharon Shipley, author of The Lavender Cookbook, favored Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’, also known as lavandin. Another good lavandin is ‘Grosso’, and other popular hybrids include English lavender ‘Munstead’, ‘Hidcote’, ‘Melissa’, and ‘Lady’. In the end, the best lavenders for cooking are those with the sweetest fragrance.
Imbue lamb, pork, or salmon with a smoky aroma by adding fresh or dried lavender flowers, stems, and leaves to hot coals during the last five minutes of cooking. Substitute fresh lavender for rosemary in savory dishes, using twice the amount of lavender in place of rosemary. Making custard? Steep ¼ cup chopped lavender flowers per 2 cups warmed milk for 1 to 2 hours. Strain out the lavender and proceed with the recipe. Try lavender and leek quiche, lavender flavored hot chocolate or lemonade, make lavender-lemon sorbet, lavender cookies, lavender-infused sugar, and flavor caramel sauce with dried lavender and fleur de sel—the possibilities are endless.
There isn’t a best lavender for craft projects; your selection depends on what you’re making. Lavender wands woven with ribbons demand a long stem. Shorter stems are fine for wreaths. Flower color choices range from dark to pale shades of blue and purple, to pink and white. But for potpourri, opt for English lavender or lavandin as they have the strongest scents.
Lavender essential oil is distilled from either L. angustifolia or lavandin. It is prized by aromatherapists as an agent to promote relaxation. It also is believed to help treat anxiety, fungal infections, allergies, depression, insomnia, eczema, nausea, and even menstrual cramps. (Consult a medical professional for uses.) The oil contains chemical compounds of linalool and esters, making it valuable as a natural antiseptic, antibiotic, and insect and moth repellant.
Lavender is beautiful in the garden, useful in the kitchen and craft room, and has many known and potential medicinal benefits. It truly is a gift of nature.
Photography provided by chictype/iStock/Getty Images Plus.