Lavender is one of the most widely-grown shrubs ever. Originally a Mediterranean plant, it is instantly recognisable by its distinctive green or silvery-grey foliage, blue flowers (although there are some white flowered varieties) and aromatic scent. It’s also been grown for thousands of years for its other properties, too. These properties vary from insect repellant to herbal drinks and culinary flavouring to fragrances and decoration.
A member of the mint family, there are some 47 varieties. There are records of its use as long ago as the ancient Persians and Egyptians, who used it as both a perfume and to soak embalming shrouds for its scent to mask decomposition and antibacterial properties for preservation.
The Romans found many more applications for lavender and made its use widespread throughout the known world. They scattered lavender sprigs to both scent and disinfect public and domestic bath water, and the oil was used for cleaning skin. Its antibacterial properties were also appreciated, whether by army surgeons on the battlefield to clean wounds, or for cuts and scrapes at home. The rooms of sick people were also aerated with it to help clean and scent the air.
The clean, fresh scents of lavender, combined with its cleansing properties, have continued to be appreciated. Queen Victoria was a devotee, and during WW1 it was used as an antiseptic cleaner for washing floors and walls. In fact, its name is thought to be partially derived from the Latin lavare (to wash) due to its use by the Romans as an additive to water for washing both themselves and their clothes in.
Today it is as popular as ever. Most of its therapeutic uses derive from lavender oil, which is produced by steam distillation from commercially grown plants often from the south of France and the world’s largest producer, Bulgaria. The oil is then used by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries for the production of perfumes, ointments, creams.
Closer to home, the oil is a staple essential oil for aromatherapy. It can be mixed with a carrier to produce a massage oil which is known for its soothing and relaxing qualities and relieving the tension in sore and bruised muscles. When placed in a diffuser its antiseptic qualities are effective for relieving the symptoms of coughs, colds and other respiratory infections.
Therapeutically, lavender is probably best-know for treating the skin.
As the Romans discovered, in diluted form its antibacterial and antiseptic qualities make it effective for washing minor cuts. These same qualities make it good at managing spots such as acne which are caused by skin oils and bacteria.
Try it also as an insect repellent, and if the really keen ones decide to ignore it, try on insect bites and stings as it will provide quick relief for the stinging itchiness. This ability to relive itchiness, combined with its moisturising and anti-inflammatory properties, will provide relief to dry, chapped skin such as that caused by winter winds, and complaints like eczema and other uncomfortable rashes. Diluted with water and sprayed onto sunburn it will help take away the heat and also help to heal the skin quickly. Lavender’s soothing effect comes not only from its fresh, clean, floral aroma.
The essential oil is worth rubbing into the temples or the back of the neck for relief from tension headaches. You could also try inhaling or placing a drop at the base of the nostrils to help provide calm for anxious occasions; perhaps that wedding speech or a job interview, or to unwind after a long day. Another way of unwinding with lavender is to mix a few drops in with your bathwater to provide a relaxant for your muscles and to create a calming atmosphere in the bathroom. Lavender tea is also recommended for its calming qualities, and can be made easily by adding boiling water to lavender flowers picked from your garden.
Lavender oil is generally considered as safe to use but it is not recommended for use if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Also, only therapeutic quality oil is for use on the skin and it should be diluted or blended with base oils and creams in the correct proportions. Check the label as fragrance-only oils are labelled as not suitable for use internally or on the skin.