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Dinner Conversation: Lavender (Lavandula)

Lavender harvest has begun. After a day in the field of cutting sticky handfuls, I met my friend Liz Birnbaum for dinner, who just happens to be the lovely mastermind behind The Curated Feast. A lively conversation ensued about the history, uses and folklore of this odoriferous plant. We even had a musky grapefruit and lavender saison by Shanty Shack Brewing during our meal. As expected, our conversation began with the heady fragrance and tranquilizing effects of the plant, then quickly delved into its history—Liz’s trademark.

This plant has been around for quite some time, dating back some 2500 years. It is a perennial evergreen shrub, native to the Canary Islands, North and East Africa, south Europe, the Mediterranean, Arabia, and India. Today it is cultivated throughout the world, both in gardens and landscapes as well as commercially.

Lavender is the common name for the numerous flowering plant genus Lavandula of the mint family. The most commonly used species in the essential oil industry is Lavandula augustifolia, known for its sweet floral aroma and medicinal properties. L. x intermedia is quickly catching up however, properly labeled as Lavandin but sometimes called Dutch Lavender. This species showcases a deeper bluish flower with a slight camphor note. And L. stoechas, or Spanish or French lavender, thought to be the species most likely used during Roman times, is today reserved largely for landscaping purposes.

The term lavender comes from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash,” as the Romans used the blossoms to scent their bath water. But the plant was referred to as nardus by the ancient Greeks, after the Syrian city of Naarda, and its first recorded use was by the Egyptians during mummification.

Flowers fetched a pretty price during Roman times, selling for 100 denarii a pound—a month’s wages for a farm laborer, or fifty haircuts at the local barber—and were thought to restore the skin. The Romans introduced lavender to southern Britain when they conquered.

During the Great Plague of 1665, people wore bunches of lavender on each wrist and lavender oil was used by glove makers to scent their leathers, keeping the disease at bay. Also during the Plague, grave robbers washed their hands in a concoction called Four Thieves Vinegar containing lavender, wormwood, rue, sage, mint, and rosemary, and were rarely infected. The reason their technique may have actually worked is that lavender is known to repel the tiny culprit that was transmitting the Black Death: fleas.

In English folklore, a mixture of lavender, mugwort, chamomile, and rose petals is said to attract sprites, fairies, brownies, and elves. And lavender has long been thought an aphrodisiac, used for centuries in arousing passions. Legend has it that Cleopatra herself used the ambrosial flower to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Lavender is a valuable source of nectar for bees, producing a wonderful honey. And the flowers are used culinarily as well, lending a floral, slightly sweet, and elegant flavor to many dishes. It pairs well with sheep and goat cheeses—a few little buds atop lavender honey would be the perfect finishing touch. Lavender buds can also be candied and used to make lavender sugar.

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