Queen Elizabeth 1 of England ordered that the royal table be supplied with a condiment made of it. Charles VI of France sat on cushions stuffed with it. What was the object of this royal ardor? A fragment shrub known as lavender. Anyone who has ever stood amid the purple haze of a lavender field will understand why so many people are captivated by this aromatic plant.
There are over 30 species of lavender. This hardy herb thrives in diverse climates, from the cool air of the French Alps to the dry heat of the Middle East. The plant’s botanical name Lavandula comes from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash.” It is derived from a custom of the ancient Romans, who perfumed their baths with lavender oil.
The medicinal use of lavender dates back nearly 2000 years. During the middle ages, it was a main ingredient in a concoction known as four thieves vinegar, which was used to combat the plague. The vinegar likely derived it name from the fact that grave robbers who rummaged through the belongings of plague victims washed in this lavender-based solution. Despite the risks of their work, it seems they rarely contracted the disease.
Herbalists of the 16th century claimed that lavender would cure not only colds and headaches but also paralysis of the limbs and neuroses. In addition, they believed that wearing a skullcap made of lavender would increase intelligence. As recently as World War 1, some governments asked their citizens to gather lavender from their gardens so that the extracted oil could be used to dress soldiers’ wounds.
Some lavender oils, especially lavandula angustifolia, appear to have an effect on a number of species of bacteria and fungi. Some researchers have suggested that lavender oil may be useful for treating bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics. Lavender oil has also found several uses in midwifery. In a large clinical trial it was shown that the mothers using lavender oil in their bathwater consistently reported lower discomfort scores 3 to 5 days post-natally. Lavender oil is also currently used in many delivery rooms for its general calming action.
What about Queen Elizabeth’s taste for lavender? Is lavender really edible? Lavender was a favorite flavoring in the cooking of Tudor and Elizabeth England, used as a relish to be served with game, roasted meats, with fruit salads, sprinkled over sweet dishes, or as a sweetmeat in its own right. Today some species of lavender are used to flavor biscuits, cakes, and ice cream. On the other hand, not all types are desirable –especially to insects. In fact, lavender oil or powdered foliage and flowers may also be useful as both commercial and domestic pesticides as the application of lavender deters mites, grain weevil, aphids and clothes moth.
In recent decades lavender has enjoyed renewed popularity. It is now cultivated in Australia, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. Lavender is unlike wine, oil produced from the same species will vary from region to region, as it is influenced by the soil and climate in which the lavender grows. Even the timing and method of harvesting can affect the final product.
Unlike wine, lavender oil is extracted not by crushing but by steaming. It takes about 250 kg of lavender to produce one liter of oil. The freshly cut flowers, stalks, and leaves are firmly pressed into a large steel drum. Steam is pumped into the base of the container, and as it rises through the plant parts, it releases the oil. The steam and oil pass through a condenser and into a pot, where the oil separates from the water and rises to the surface. The oil is drawn off and stored in ceramic-lined containers, where it is left to mature for some months