The Lavender Flowers
Few flowers are more well known for their distinctive color and scent than lavender. It appears in herbal treatises as early as the 13th century as treatments for headaches and nervous disorders. Hardy plants that are quick to flower and hard to kill, lavender remains a favorite of gardeners to this day.
Lavender is a member of the mint family and its Latin name is Lavandula. L. augustifolia and L. officinalis are terms for the species and are used interchangeably.
Some of the subspecies are known by different names:
- English lavender is also known as Lavandula vera, or "true lavender."
- French lavender is Lavandula dentata, but was once given the designation L. fragrans for its sharper scent.
- Spanish lavender is Lavandula stoechas is characterized by the showy bracts at the tip of each flower.
- Lavandula spica, or "spike lavender" is thought to be the "spikenard" mentioned in the Bible.
The modern word for lavender is from the Latin "lavare," which means "to wash," though early Romans might also have named the flower from the word "lividus" for "bluish, livid." The use of lavender in bathing and for scenting fabrics dates back to early Rome.
Native to the Mediterranean region and having been used in ancient Egypt as part of the mummification process, the lavender plant may have originated as far east as Asia. It quickly spread across Africa, up through the Mediterranean and into southern Europe with the spice trades. Today lavender fields can be found on every continent but Antarctica.
Description and Characteristics
Most lavender plants grow one to three feet high on a short, irregular, multi-branched stem which is covered in a yellowish gray bark. The branches are quadrangular, slender, and grow in a broom-like formation. The leaves grow in opposite pairs along the branch and are covered with fine hairs when young.
The flowers are produced on long stems in terminating, blunt spikes. Lavender flower spikes are composed of whorls or rings of tiny purple flowerets, with the lower whorls being more distinct than the upper. The calyx is tubular, ribbed, with thirteen veins, and is grayish-purple in color. The corolla is dual-lipped and typically bluish-violet.
Symbolism and Cultural Signficance:
- In Europe's Middle Ages, it was said to evoke love.
- In Victorian times, lavender flowers signified devotion.
- Reputed to be one of the flowers most loved by the Virgin Mary, it also symbolizes virginity, cleanliness, purity, and virtue.
- It's otherwise mentioned as signifying luck, trust, and silence
Cultivation and Care
Fairly easy to cultivate, lavender is best grown in light, sandy soil in a well-drained bed which gets lots of sun. They need very little fertilizing when planted in open beds, though indoor lavender plants or those grown in containers out of doors will need more.
They should be placed where the air can circulate through the stems freely, but where strong winds won't blow them over and cause them to break. Don't use organic mulches as they tend to encourage root rot. Instead, use a fine pea gravel or sand to help the soil hold moisture.
Transplanting lavender is easy, though the bushes may not flower well the next year. Water the plant thoroughly and be sure to cut off any flowers first. Trim back damaged roots and any leaves or stems that look brown or dried. After relocating, continue to remove flower spikes to encourage the plant to focus its energies into strong root growth.
Bushes which are pruned regularly from their earliest days will take it well, but pruning lavender plants which are older and have never been pruned is not advised. It's better to dig up the bushes and replace with younger plants that can be taught to endure pruning.
When growing lavender plants in containers, use potting mix cut with a little extra perlite and make sure there are adequate drainage holes in the bottom. Repot annually and use the opportunity to root prune for compactness. They'll need to be watered thoroughly in dry summer months, but avoid watering in winter and over-watering at any time of the year.
Diseases and Pests
Lavender is remarkably pest and disease free, and may lend some protection to other plants growing near it. It is susceptible to infection by the Alfa Mosaic Virus, which is usually fatal to the plant. If yellow areas appear on the leaves and they begin to distort or otherwise grow in a misshapen way, it should be dug up and burnt as soon as possible to limit infection to nearby plants. AMV is spread by aphids, and by human contact.
A disease called "shab," or phomopsis lavandulae, once wreaked havoc in the UK's commercial lavender crop. The disease is caused by a parasitic fungus, but has not been seen in decades.
Rosemary beetles can cause a few problems if the infestation gets out of control, but the biggest pest a lavender bush faces are rabbits, who love to dig down and eat the roots.
Lavender's medicinal uses include:
- Infusions of lavender flowers for nervous exhaustion, headaches, during childbirth to stimulate uterine contractions, and as a digestive tonic. In Arabic medicine the tea is used as an expectorant.
- Essential lavender oil can be applied directly to scalds and burns for relief and to speed healing of the skin. Diluted in a chest rub, it eases asthmatic and bronchitic spasms. Diluted in massage oil, it helps relax painful muscles; also massage into temples and nape of neck for relief from tension headaches and at the first hint of a migraine. It can be applied undiluted to insect bites and stings for almost instant relief.
- In the first and second World Wars it was as an antiseptic.
- In aromatherapy, the scent of lavender is used to soothe skin, to ease headaches and insomnia, against nervousness and anxiety, and to lower blood pressure.
- A few drops of essential oil in water will not only improve hair's shine, but is said to be an effective preventative treatment for lice.
- Lavender in soaps leaves skin fresh and lightly scented.
- A few stalks of lavender steeped in vinegar is a time-honored treatment for oily hair and scalp.
- Lavender oil is an insect repellant, nontoxic and more fragrant than commercial brands.
In the home:
- Use dried lavender in closets to repel moths and keep clothes lightly scented.
- Dissolve a few drops of lavender oil in water and spray on kitchen and bathroom surfaces to retard the growth of disease-causing microbes.
- Culinarily speaking, try adding a lavender infusion to lemonade, or perhaps some lavender jelly. Lavender cookies are made with fresh or dried flower tops, finely chopped and added to the batter. Lavender florets make an attractive and delicious addition to a summer salad.
Cut or purchase fresh lavender flowers with approximately 18 inches of stalk. Strip away any brown or discolored leaves, then bind stalks with twine or a rubber band. Cover loosely with a paper bag and hang upside down in a warm, dry room for 2 - 3 weeks until dry, then remove and use as needed.
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