Getting to Know Lavender is part of a monthly series here on FBC called The Spice Box. Primarily written by Michelle Peters-Jones, these articles create a spice primer for new and experienced home cooks alike!
Scientific Name: Lavandula
It's a well known fact that specific fragrances can trigger memories. For me, the fragrance of today's herb, lavender, takes me straight to a heavenly road trip in France one hot summer. Living in England at the time meant easy access to Europe, and I took full advantage of the cheap airline prices to backpack over the continent, especially during summer break.
The vast lavender fields are one of my fondest memories of the French countryside, and they are truly magnificent: waves upon waves of purple scented flowers with their ashy green leaves, spreading their fragrance all over. The smell is strongest if you happen to drive by after a rainstorm, mixing with the aroma of fresh earth to make for some unforgettable memories.
Lavender is a perennial herb from the mint family, and is characterized by its ash green leaves and bright, long, intensely fragrant purple flowers. It's a highly aromatic herb, and just a touch of its flowers and foliage will linger on your hands for hours.
There are almost 39 species and a considerable number of hybrids of this herb for all purposes, from culinary, to cosmetic, aromatherapy, medicinal and ornamental. Originally native to Southern Europe, North Africa, parts of Asia and the Indian subcontinent, lavender can now be cultivated in most parts of the world, both as an edible and a decorative species.
How to Grow Lavender
Lavender is surprisingly easy to grow, and is sometimes called the lazy gardener's herb of choice. The best option for growing lavender is to buy cuttings or plants. It's worth looking for plants that have been adapted to your climate. Plant them in well drained soil, and in areas that get full sunshine.
Don't overdo the watering, as lavender doesn't like too much, and space out the plants so they can get air circulating through them. Lavender plants are particularly suitable for rock gardens and areas with sandy soil. Pick flowers often, to keep the plant nice and full. The plants can be pruned back in spring and will usually last the winters unless you live in a very cold climate.
Culinary Uses and Flavour Profile of Lavender
So how is lavender used? Lavender is, surprisingly perhaps, not always cultivated as a culinary herb, so it's important to buy the culinary grade of this herb if you're planning to cook with it. It has a deliciously fragrant, citrus-like flavour, which pairs very well with sweet and savoury dishes.
Lavender is one of the herbs that are part of Herbes de Provence, a collection of herbs that includes oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, which is usually used as a flavouring for lamb, roast chicken and other meats. Dried lavender flowers are used in baking, sweets, ice cream and other desserts. They can also be infused into tea for a delicious, calming drink.
Like some of the strong herbs listed, a little lavender goes a long way, and it can very easily overpower other herbs and flavourings. It's important to go easy on it and ideally use a little at a time, until you get your desired taste. You can also blend dried lavender into sugar for an infused sugar that you can use for baking and other desserts. The flowers can also be candied for an edible garnish.
Non-Culinary Uses of Lavender
A lot of commercially cultivated lavender is used in the cosmetic, aromatherapy and fragrance industries, and herbal medicine. Lavender essential oils are commonly found in soaps, perfumes, cleaning products and potpourris. It's used as a relaxation aid and to promote healthy sleep, and also as a treatment for insomnia. With its anti-inflammatory properties, lavender essential oil is used for massage therapy and in aromatherapy both as a stimulant and a relaxant.
Lavender oil is known to treat topical skin conditions like burns, scars and bug bites. Lavender water was used in quite a few ancient cultures to refresh and rejuvenate the body. Lavender sachets are used in scenting clothes and drawers, thanks to its insect repellent properties. A few drops in a warm bath provides relief for new mothers after giving birth.
And finally, did you know that the word lavender originally comes from from the Latin word lavare, which means "to wash"? Lavender was also used both as an aide to promote chastity in young people, and as an aphrodisiac at the same time (go figure!).
Looking for more spices and herbs to jazz up your kitchen creations? Check out these Spice Box profiles:
- Getting to Know Thyme
- Getting to Know Lemongrass
- Getting to Know Mustard Seeds
- Getting to Know Fenugreek
What are your favourite uses for lavender? Let us know and link to your own recipes in the comments!
Have a spice you’d like to see profiled? Let us know in the comments!