Lovely Lavender

Reader Contribution by Laura Damron
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A dear friend of mine inherited an extensive garden when she and her husband purchased their new home.  I’ve been enjoying seeing her photos and helping to identify some of the plants she wasn’t sure about. It came up during one such conversation that she also has quite a bit of lavender, but isn’t sure what to do with it.

I could go on for days about how much I love lavender. Its distinctive scent and easy- going nature has made it a favorite not only for centuries, but the whole world over: the name lavender itself comes from the Medieval Latin word “lavare” which means to wash. Medicinally, it has been used for ages to soothe everything from anxiety and headaches, to burns and other skin conditions.

Lavender does vary in fragrance, somewhat, depending on the species. For our purposes here, I’m talking about Lavandula officinalis or Lavandula angustifolia; both being Old English types that are highly fragrant.  Feel free to use whichever lavender you like best, but take care to use only untreated plants (lavender or otherwise) for any culinary or skin care applications. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dried; keep in mind that the flavors/scent of the dried herb are more concentrated than the fresh, and can be quite potent.

A word about allergies: lavender allergies are uncommon, but not unheard of. Test for a reaction before using lavender by rubbing a single leaf on the skin inside the fold of the elbow. Wait 24 hours; if any redness or rash appears, do not use it.

Here are some of my favorite uses for lavender; while this is by no means an exhaustive list, it is a good introduction to using this wonderful plant, for those less experienced:

– Culinary. Both the leaves and flowers are edible, and can be used much in the same way as Rosemary when cooking. (It can be overpowering, though, so when adding it to food, remember that less is more.) The traditional herb blend called Herbes de Provence contains lavender, and it’s generally easy to find in grocery stores.  Perhaps my favorite culinary use, however, is to make an herbal infusion (tea) with lavender along with some peppermint leaves. Lavender and mint have long been used together to help relieve migraines and other headaches; when cooled, this same infusion makes a soothing compress or body splash for sunburns.  To make the tea, I simply put some fresh lavender and peppermint leaves in a tea ball, drop it in a mug, and top off with hot water. I don’t measure them, but if I had to guess, it’s probably a tablespoon or so of each. I prefer mine lightly sweetened with some honey, to take a little of the edge off of the peppermint.

– In the Bath. I keep a jar of Epsom salts with dried lavender flowers in it, for those times when I need a really relaxing bath. The ratio is around 2 tablespoons dried lavender to 1 cup Epsom salt; when I’m ready to use it, I just take out a half cup or so and put it in some cheesecloth or an herb bag to keep the flowers from making a mess in the tub.

– Sachets. As mentioned earlier, lavender’s scent intensifies as it is dried. To take advantage of that, make some small bundles of the dried flowers and leaves to place in closets and drawers. Muslin or tulle works well; simply cut the fabric into 4 inch squares, place the dried herbs in the center, and then tie them closed with a ribbon or some embroidery floss. To keep moths out of woolens, add a little cedar to the bundles and tuck them in with winter clothes when putting them away for the summer.

– Oil. It’s quite easy to make infused oil with lavender: take a half-pint jar and fill it with clean fresh leaves and flowers. Next, fill the jar the rest of the way with food-grade oil such as almond or coconut, making sure to cover the herbs. If time isn’t an issue, cover the jar with a lid and let it stand for a couple of days at room temperature to infuse, before straining. If you’re in more of a hurry, leave the lid off and put the jar in a water bath on low heat to lightly warm the oil and speed up the extraction process. Once the oil is warm (no more than 110 degrees F), turn off the heat source and put the lid on without the band, and allow the jar to cool in the water bath. Once it’s cooled, strain the mixture through some cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove the herbs, and the oil is ready to use. It makes a great massage oil or after-bath moisturizer; for a special treat make a sugar scrub using a dollop of the oil and add some plain white sugar to form an exfoliating paste. This is great for softening up a gardener’s hands, when they’re in need of a little extra TLC this time of year.

– Linen Spray. Much like making infused oil, it’s easy to use alcohol to extract the lavender’s volatile oils out of the plant and into a new carrier. Again, we start with a half-pint jar packed with clean leaves and flowers. Top off this time with rubbing alcohol or vodka, cover, and let it sit out of direct sunlight for up to three days. Strain through a coffee filter and put the alcohol into a spray bottle; use as you would any commercial linen water or room freshener.  I keep a bottle on my nightstand, and like to spritz my sheets before going to bed, to take advantage of lavender’s calming effects.

Lavender is easy to grow, and equally easy to dry- simply put a few sprigs in your dehydrator or hang them upside down in a warm, dry room until the leaves are crisp and crumble easily in your fingers. Once it’s completely dry, lavender keeps indefinitely in a sealed container- not that mine ever lasts that long!

What are your favorite ways to use lavender?

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