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Learning To Love Lavender

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I suppose that most herbalists have favorite herbs; there are certainly fragrances, tastes and effects that I prefer over others.  I enjoy the fresh, apple-like scent of Chamomile, the bitterness of Dandelion, the bright flavor of Mint and the relaxing qualities of Skullcap.  Sometimes, we find an herb that smells nice, tastes good and has desired physical effects, like Passion Flower and it becomes a favorite.  Many would list Lavender among their favorite herbs - at least, it seems to rival Patchouli among most of the women I have met who use herbs…. I grew up in a hippie, college town.  For me though, Lavender has been a challenge.  I find the scent pleasant, but it triggers my nasal allergies.  It is hard to enjoy the relaxing aroma of Lavender with a stuffy nose and itchy eyes.

As an ingredient of the Herbs de Provence, I quite like the flavor.  Often these herbs show up in surprising French dishes, such as as simple as white beans, or grilled meat or even fish.  They add an interesting fragrance and flavor, but it would hard to identify the individual herbs in many dishes.  As far as the specific flavor of Lavender, I recall some very delicate candies from my childhood; the flavor was challenging at first, but I came to enjoy them.  Lavender is bitter and strongly aromatic.

Lavender (Lavandula species) has been used medicinally for millennia.  Dioscorides recommended several varieties of Lavender and even an infused Lavender wine - he called Lavender “Stoechas”:

Stoechas grows in the Islands of Galatia near Messalia called the Stoechades, which is how it got its name. It is a herb with slender twigs and filaments similar to thyme, but longer-leaved, sharp to the taste, and somewhat bitter. A decoction of it (like hyssop) is good for disorders in the chest. It is useful mixed with antidotes. It is also called syncliopa, alcibiades, pancration or styphonia; the Egyptians call it suphlo, the Magi, oculus pythonis, the Romans, schiolebina.

Stoechadites is made in same way as hyssop wine. Put one pound of stoechados [lavender] into six gallons [of wine]. It dissolves thick fluids, gaseousness, pains of the side and the nerves, and extreme cold. It is effectively given with pyrethrum and sagapenum for epilepsy.

Yet, Lavender was more commonly called Nardus or Nard by the Greeks, being named after the Syrian town of Naarda, which was a major center of trade in perfumes, herbs and spices.  This was one of the most expensive perfumes of the ancient world.  It was included in the tomb of The Egyptian King Tutankhamen.  It was also this Nard that caused scandal among the disciples of Christ.  Although the Bible tells us that Judas turned against our Lord at the institution of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, prior to that it was recorded that he objected to what he considered a waste of money when Mary Magdalene honored the Christ with an expensive oil of nard (although, some scholars believe  it may have been Spikenard as opposed to Lavender)... proving that he was one who “knew the price of everything but the value of nothing” as so many are in our time.

Mrs. Grieves tells us, quoting from a book entitled Herbal Simples, by Dr. Fernie:

'By the Greeks the name Nardus is given to Lavender, from Naarda, a city of Syria near the Euphrates, and many persons call the plant "Nard." St. Mark mentions this as Spikenard, a thing of great value.... In Pliny's time, blossoms of the Nardus sold for a hundred Roman denarii (or L.3 2s. 6d.) the pound. This Lavender or Nardus was called Asarum by the Romans, because it was not used in garlands or chaplets. It was formerly believed that the asp, a dangerous kind of viper, made Lavender its habitual place of abode, so that the plant had to be approached with great caution.'

Lavender seems to have been well established in the Monastic Medicine of the middle ages.  Saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote of two varieties:

Lavender is hot and dry, having very little moisture.  It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odor.  If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die.  Its odor clears the eyes.  Since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones, it curbs very many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified.

Spike Lavender is hot and dry and its heat is healthy.  Whoever cooks this lavender in wine or, if he has no wine, honey and water, and frequently drinks it when it is warm, will lessen the pain in his liver and lungs, and the stuffiness in his chest.  It also makes his thinking and disposition clear.

So well ingrained into herbalism was Lavender in the 1500s that Gerard listed fourteen varieties, including several herbs that were called Lavenders but are not related, such as Sea Lavender (Limonium).  He tells us:

Lavender Spike is called in Latin Lavendula, and Spica: in Spanish, Spigo, and Languda. The first is the male, and the second the female. It is thought of some to be that sweet herb Casia whereof Virgil maketh mention in the second Eclogue of his Bucolics:

Tum Casia atque aliis intexus suavibus herbis,

Mollia luteola pingit vacinia Caltha.

And then shell Spike and such sweet herbs infold

And paint the Jacinth with the Marigold.

And likewise in the fourth of his Georgics where he entreateth of choosing of seats and places for bees, and for the ordering thereof, he saith thus:

Haec circum Casiæ virides & olentia late

Serpilla, & graviter spirantis copia Thymbræ

Floreat; &c. --

About them set fresh Lavender and store

Of wild Thyme with strong Savory to flower.

Yet there is another Casia called in shops Casia Lignea, as also Casia nigra, which is named Casia fistula; and another a small shrubby plant extant among the shrubs or hedge bushes, which some think to be the Casia Poetica, mentioned in the precedent verses.

The Temperature.

Lavender is hot and dry, and that in the third degree, and is of a thin substance, consisting of many airy and spiritual parts. Therefore it is good to be given any way against the cold diseases of the head, and especially those which have their original or beginning not of abundance of humours, but chiefly of a cold quality only.

The Virtues.

A. The distilled water of Lavender smelt unto, or the temples and forehead bathed therewith, is a refreshing to them that have the catalepsy, a light migraine, & to them that have the falling sicknesss, and that use to swoon much. But when there is abundance of humours, especially mixed with blood, it is not then to be used safely, neither is the composition to be taken which is made of distilled wine: in which such kind of herbs, flowers, or seeds, and certain spices are infused or steeped, though most men do rashly and at aduenture give them without making any difference at all. For by using such hot things that fill and stuff the head, both the disease is made greater, and the sick man also brought into danger, especially when letting of blood, or purging have not gone before. Thus much by way of admonition, because that everywhere some unlearned physicians and divers rash and overbold apothecaries, and other foolish women, do by and by give such compotations, and others of the like kind, not only to those that have the apoplexy; but also to those that are taken, or have the catuche or catalepsis with a fever; to whom they can give nothing worse, seeing those things do very much hurt, and oftentimes bring death itself.

B. The flowers of Lavender picked from the knops, I mean the blue part and not the husk, mixed with cinnamon, nutmegs, and cloves, made into powder, and given to drink in the distilled water thereof, doth help the panting and passion of the heart, prevaileth against giddiness, turning, or swimming of the brain, and members subject to the palsy.

C. Conserve made of the flowers with sugar, profiteth much against the diseases aforesaid, if the quantity of a bean be taken thereof in the morning fasting.

D. It profiteth these much that have the palsy, if they be washed with the distilled water of the flowers, or anointed with the oil made of the flowers, and oil olive, in such manner as oil of roses is, which shall be expressed in the treatise of Roses.

Culpepper found Lavender too common and well known to detail its description:

Being an inhabitant almost in every garden, it is so well known, that it needs no description.

Government and virtues. Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently. Lavender is of a special good use for all the griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling-sickness, the dropsy, or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies, and often faintings. It strengthens the stomach, and frees the liver and spleen from obstructions, provokes women's courses, and expels the dead child and after-birth. The flowers of Lavender steeped in wine, helps them to make water that are stopped, or are troubled with the wind or cholic, if the place be bathed therewith. A decoction made with the flowers of Lavender, Hore-hound, Fennel and Asparagus root, and a little Cinnamon, is very profitably used to help the falling-sickness, and the giddiness or turning of the brain: to gargle the mouth with the decoction thereof is good against the tooth-ache. Two spoonfuls of the distilled water of the flowers taken, helps them that have lost their voice, as also the tremblings and passions of the heart, and faintings and swooning, not only being drank, but applied to the temples, or nostrils to be smelled unto; but it is not safe to use it where the body is replete with blood and humours, because of the hot and subtile spirits wherewith it is possessed. The chymical oil drawn from Lavender, usually called Oil of Spike, is of so fierce and piercing a quality, that it is cautiously to be used, some few drops being sufficient, to be given with other things, either for inward or outward griefs.

It seems the French Lavender was most popular among the English herbalists and gardeners… much to their chagrin I am sure, and was referred to as Dwarf Lavender.  Mrs. Grieves tells us:

Another species of LAVENDER, L. Stoechas, known also as French Lavender, forms a pretty little shrub, with narrow leaves and very small, dark violet flowers, terminated with a tuft of brightcoloured leaflets, which makes it very attractive. It is an inhabitant of the coast, but only occurs on sand or other crystalline rocks, and never on limestone. It is very abundant on the islands of Hyères, which the Ancient Romans called the 'Stoechades,' after this plant. This was probably the Lavender so extensively used in classical times by the Romans and the Libyans, as a perfume for the bath (whence probably the plant derived its name - from the Latin, lavare, to wash). It is plentiful in Spain and Portugal and is only used as a rule for strewing the floors of churches and houses on festive occasions, or to make bonfires on St. John's Day, when evil spirits are supposed to be abroad, a custom formerly observed in England with native plants. The odour is more akin to Rosemary than to ordinary Lavender. The flowers of this species were used medicinally in England until about the middle of the eighteenth century, the plant being called by our old authors, 'Sticadore.' It was one of the ingredients of the 'Four Thieves' Vinegar' famous in the Middle Ages. It is not used for distillation, though in France and Spain, the country people, in a simple manner extract an oil, used for dressing wounds, by hanging the flowers downwards in a closed bottle in the sunshine. The Arabs make use of the flowers as an expectorant and antispasmodic.

The Dwarf Lavender is more compact than the other forms and has flowers of a deeper colour. It makes a neat edging in the fruit or kitchen garden, where the larger forms might be in the way, and the flowers, borne abundantly, are useful for cutting.

All the forms of Lavender are much visited by bees and prove a good source of honey.

Lavender was familiar to Shakespeare, but was probably not a common plant in his time, for though it is mentioned by Spencer as 'The Lavender still gray' and by Gerard as growing in his garden, it is not mentioned by Bacon in his list of sweet-smelling plants. It is now found in every garden, but we first hear of it being cultivated in England about 1568. It must soon have become a favourite, however, for among the long familiar garden plants which the Pilgrim Fathers took with them to their new home in America, we find the names of Lavender, Rosemary and Southernwood, though John Josselyn, in his Herbal, says that 'Lavender Cotton groweth pretty well,' but that 'Lavender is not for the Climate.'

Parkinson has much to say about Lavender:

'Of Sage and of Lavender, both the purple and the rare white (there is a kinde hereof that beareth white flowers and somewhat broader leaves, but it is very rare and seene but in few places with us, because it is more tender and will not so well endure our cold Winters).'

'Lavender,' he says, 'is almost wholly spent with us, for to perfume linnen, apparell, gloves and leather and the dryed flowers to comfort and dry up the moisture of a cold braine.

'This is usually put among other hot herbs, either into bathes, ointment or other things that are used for cold causes. The seed also is much used for worms.'

Lavender is of 'especiall good use for all griefes and paines of the head and brain,' it is now almost solely grown for the extraction of its essential oil, which is largely employed in perfumery.

Of French Lavender he says:

'The whole plant is somewhat sweete, but nothing so much as Lavender. It groweth in the Islands Staechades which are over against Marselles and in Arabia also: we keep it with great care in our Gardens. It flowreth the next yeare after it is sowne, in the end of May, which is a moneth before any Lavender.'

Lavender was one of the old street cries, and white lavender is said to have grown in the garden of Queen Henrietta Maria.

In German Folk Medicine, Lavender oil especially found much use.  Fr. Kneipp wrote:

Lavender-oil is sold at any chemist's. It should not be wanting among the home-remedies.

Five drops taken on sugar assist the digestion, and give a good appetite:  Those who are troubled with wind, with headache caused by rising gases, or with nausea, take this oil as given above. I have often used it with the best results for those afflicted with mental derangement, and I maintain that, in very many cases, the cure depends upon the of the gases, which have especially bad effects on the brain. In my opinion much too little attention is generally paid to these gases in the treatment of such patients. Those who have ever suffered from flatulency know what a dreadful part these raging winds play in the body.

Against loss of appetite , congestions, giddiness, and all the many different sufferings of the head, the dose indicated in the beginning of this para- graph will afford great relief.

Brother Aloysius wrote:

This is an aromatic plant grown in gardens. It has a pleasant smell, a little like camphor; it is a perennial, woody plant or shrub with narrow, ash-grey leaves and blue, fragrant flowers which are used medicinally; they form spikes on the stem terminals.  The flowering period is June to September.  Spike oil, or lavender oil, is extracted from these flowers and used for the treatment of several illnesses, including the promotion of menstruation.  Take 5 drops on sugar twice a day.  It is also beneficial for the accumulated wind, colic, congestion of blood in the head, dizziness, headaches, hypochondria, lack of appetite.  The well-known lavender water is prepared by steeping 2 ½ cups of freshly picked lavender flowers in 4 cups of 32% alcohol for several days and then filtering it.

Lavender is still much used in modern herbalism.  Plants for A Future tells us:

Lavender is a commonly used household herb, though it is better known for its sweet-scented aroma than for its medicinal qualities. However, it is an important relaxing herb, having a soothing and relaxing affect upon the nervous system. The flowering spikes can be dried and used internally in a tincture, though the extracted essential oil is more commonly used. The essential oil is much more gentle in its action than most other essential oils and can be safely applied direct to the skin as an antiseptic to help heal wounds, burns etc. An essential oil obtained from the flowers is antihalitosis, powerfully antiseptic, antispasmodic, aromatic, carminative, cholagogue, diuretic, nervine, sedative, stimulant, stomachic and tonic. It is not often used internally, though it is a useful carminative and nervine. It is mainly used externally where it is an excellent restorative and tonic - when rubbed into the temples, for example, it can cure a nervous headache, and it is a delightful addition to the bath-water. Its powerful antiseptic properties are able to kill many of the common bacteria such as typhoid, diphtheria, streptococcus and Pneumococcus, as well as being a powerful antidote to some snake venoms. It is very useful in the treatment of burns, sunburn, scalds, bites, vaginal discharge, anal fissure etc, where it also soothes the affected part of the body and can prevent the formation of permanent scar tissue. The essential oil is used in aromatherapy. Its keyword is "Immune system".

As for cooking with Lavender, many varieties are considered to be too bitter and even the Provencal Lavender is best used lightly and mixed with other herbs.  The exception would be in making Lavender infused honey, a Lavender syrup or even Lavender ice cream.  While not all Herbs de Provence contain Lavender as an ingredient, most blends sold in America will, along with savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and oregano.  The Herbs de Provence pair particularly well with pork, chicken and lamb, tomatoes and fresh green beans.

Lavender is a boldly assertive herb.  While I tend to associate its aroma with memories of a stuffy nose and girls with hairy armpits, it is certainly useful.  Beyond Lavender’s medicinal, aromatic and culinary value, it is also a good garden companion.  Lavender, grown among several garden vegetables and even wine grapes have been shown to help repel insect pests.  Even at the risk of sneezing, it is an herb I have come to like to have around.

Author: Judson Carroll.  Judson Carroll is an Herbalist from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His weekly articles may be read at http://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/

His weekly podcast may be heard at: www.spreaker.com/show/southern-appalachian-herbs

He offers free, weekly herb classes: https://rumble.com/c/c-618325

Buy his new book: https://py.pl/d1YsC

Read about Look Up: The Medicinal Trees of the American South, An Herbalist's Guide: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/06/paypal-safer-easier-way-to-pay-online.html

Don't forget about The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle.  

Click here to read about  The Herbs and Weeds of Fr. Johannes Künzle: https://southernappalachianherbs.blogspot.com/2021/05/announcing-new-book-herbs-and-weeds-of.html


The information on this site is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition. Nothing on this site has been evaluated or approved by the FDA. I am not a doctor. The US government does not recognize the practice of herbal medicine and their is no governing body regulating herbalists. Therefore, I'm just a guy who studies herbs. I am not offering any advice. I won't even claim that anything I write is accurate or true! I can tell you what herbs have "traditionally been used for." I can tell you my own experience and if I believe an herb helped me. I cannot, nor would I tell you to do the same. If you use any herb I, or anyone else, mentions you are treating yourself. You take full responsibility for your health. Humans are individuals and no two are identical. What works for me may not work for you. You may have an allergy, sensitivity or underlying condition that no one else shares and you don't even know about. Be careful with your health. By continuing to read my blog you agree to be responsible for yourself, do your own research, make your own choices and not to blame me for anything, ever.
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Thank you, Justin! When my youngest daughter was in high school, she developed a strong anxiety about taking tests. I mixed a 1:1 essential oil solution of Lavender and Rosemary for her. I stuffed a tiny vital with cotton, and put a few drops of the essential oil blend in, to make a 'sniffy' for her, with instructions to just open it, hold it under her nose, and breathe it in, a few minutes before her tests. She loved it, and her test scores improved, dramatically. The Lavender is calming, and the Rosemary, known for eons as the 'memory' herb, helped her focus. I like to combine them, and keep them nearby, when I'm learning something new, myself.
Judson Carroll
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Carla Burke wrote:Thank you, Justin! When my youngest daughter was in high school, she developed a strong anxiety about taking tests. I mixed a 1:1 essential oil solution of Lavender and Rosemary for her. I stuffed a tiny vital with cotton, and put a few drops of the essential oil blend in, to make a 'sniffy' for her, with instructions to just open it, hold it under her nose, and breathe it in, a few minutes before her tests. She loved it, and her test scores improved, dramatically. The Lavender is calming, and the Rosemary, known for eons as the 'memory' herb, helped her focus. I like to combine them, and keep them nearby, when I'm learning something new, myself.

I am glad you enjoyed it!  Yes, it is a very good herb used that way... wish my allergies would allow it.
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