A week ago I was in a meeting when a colleague scribbled a note that I should write a column on lavender. I have not addressed that herb yet. A day later a student asked me about herbs for mouth sores. I decided it was time to put two and two together.
Lavender is a common decorative herb that has been used medicinally for centuries. The name comes from a Latin word meaning “to wash.” It is a common component in perfumes. Lavender is easily dried and also used in floral design both fresh and dried.
There are several species but all originated in the Mediterranean region. The two most common types are English and French lavender, (Lavandula angustifolia) and (Lavandula dentata) respectively, though neither is from England or France. English types are milder and better suited for culinary use. Camphor content is lower and bitterness is less.
All types tolerate dry soils and will struggle in wet areas. Soil pH should be near neutral for best growth and plants must receive full sun for at least six hours per day. They don’t require much fertilizer.
Lavender is a small shrub with dense narrow gray leaves and blue to violet flowers, which grow in compact or interrupted spikes. Plants bloom from late spring through most of the summer. Individual specimens seldom get taller than two feet and half that is more typical.
Many people confuse lavender with rosemary when plants are young. Even the aroma is somewhat similar. This small shrub occasionally escapes into the wild, but it is not invasive my any means.
Plants are susceptible to leaf spot and root rot fungi in our humid climate. One culturally redeeming feature is that few insects bother them. Deer and rabbits seldom do either. Lavender is also planted to repel pests of other plants. Fleas and moths are also discouraged by using lavender in closets and living areas.
You might not want to plant it near where cats can get hold of it though. There is conflicting information as to whether excessive amounts can be toxic to cats. Additionally, cats love the strong aroma and will tear the stuff up like they do catnip.
Flowers make a soothing tea and can be used fresh or dried. They have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-depressant properties. Numerous commercial preparations of lavender essential oils abound. Most boast amazing claims of relieving indigestion, irritability, anxiety, exhaustion, tension headaches, migraine and bronchial problems.
I’m always wary of taking these concentrated products internally. It’s easy to get too much into your system and serious complications can result. Externally, the worst that usually happens is a little skin irritation and with lavender that is rare. Lavender external preparations are used to treat cuts, scrapes, burns, stings, rashes, muscle aches, mouth and lip sores, blisters and athlete’s foot.
Lavender can be a natural depressant. Therefore, people taking medication for this could easily be overdosed. If you are on any medication, always consult your doctor before consuming more than an occasional cup of tea or consuming large quantities in cooking.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.