Relax! Relax! Relax!
The lavender plant (Lavandula angustifolia) grows from two to three feet tall and produces small purple-blue flowers that appear on the stalks in attractive slender spikes. While fine lavender is native to the western Mediterranean region, lavandin, a hybrid lavender plant, is now widely cultivated elsewhere in Europe, the United states, and Australia. It successfully grows in well-drained soils enriched with plenty of sunshine.
Lavender is a very popular addition to herb gardens because of its delightful aromatic fragrance and subtle blue-violet flowers. Hardier hybrid varieties also make attractive hedges.
The hybrid lavandin produces a greater quantity of oil, making it cheaper to process than the oil found in fine lavender. However, the oil from lavandin is inferior in quality because of its higher camphor content. While the perfume industry often uses the hybrid lavender in soaps and sachets, it is not recommended for medicinal use.
The word “lavender” is believed to be derived from the Latin word “lavare,” meaning “to wash or to cleanse.” In ancient Greek and Roman times lavender was commonly added as a scent to bathwater. It’s still used today for that purpose, especially by those suffering from nervous tension and insomnia. In ancient times it also found service as an antiseptic and was put to use disinfecting hospitals.
The Romans used lavender to scent their newly washed linen. Even today, it’s found in drawers and cupboards, freshening storage areas where moldy and musty odors might de-velop. Some historians report that in the fourteenth cen-tury at the court of Charles VI of France all of the cushions were stuffed with lavender to provide a pleasant aroma. One added benefit of this practice: the fragrance supposedly helped to deter insects.
Lavender flowers are harvested shortly before they fully unfold. Then they’re air-dried for a few days before the flowers are steam-distilled to produce aromatic oils. The flowers contain about 1.5 to 3 percent volatile oil, and it takes about 130 kilograms (285 pounds) of flowers to produce a liter (about a quart) of essential oil.
In the twentieth century, with the perfume industry centered around Grasse in southeast France, lavender oil became a major ingredient in commercial perfumes. Many believe the fragrance surpasses all others. True lavender is still used as a base in high-quality perfumes for men because it possesses a unique and delicate aroma. Preferred perfumes for women are typically based on jasmine or rose.
Today, lavender enhances hair shampoos, soaps, scented bath preparations, and personal beauty creams.
Throughout western Europe and the United States, lavender oil is used in aromatherapy and massage, as well as balneotherapy (the treatment of disease by bath). In Germany, lavender tea is a standard medicinal drink for sleep disorders and a treatment for mild stomach maladies and nervous conditions. In Ayurvedic medicine in India, lavender is used as an antidepressant, while in Tibet it’s included in psychiatric formulas.
The dried flowers, conveniently packaged in sachets and potpourri, provide a delightful aroma to any home or office. The pleasant fragrance offers a therapeutic, relaxing effect. A few drops of the oil on the pillow are reported to help those with insomnia, because the odor promotes calm and restful sleep. A recent randomized study proved that lavender oil is an effective treatment for insomnia- especially in women and younger volunteers.
Lavender, mixed with jojoba or avocado oil-or some other similar carrier oil-can be used for massage treatments. This mixture produces an aroma that promotes a calming, relaxing, anti-depressive effect and helps to relieve stress while easing muscle aches and pains. The diluted lavender oil may be applied to the forehead to pacify tension headaches.
In addition, lavender oil has also been used externally to treat wounds, burns and sunburn, insect bites, and muscular pain.
Adds Flavor to Food
Since lavender belongs to the mint family (which includes rosemary, peppermint, basil, oregano, and thyme), it should be no surprise to find it on food seasoning lists. In fact, the fresh leaves and flowers of the plant add flavor and color to any salad and can also be used for making aromatic herb teas. The leaves can flavor soups and stews, while the flowers provide a unique flavor to jams, jellies, and honey.
A healing, calming blend can be made by steeping one to two teaspoons of lavender flowers in one-half cup of water. With normal usage, lavender appears to be totally safe. There are no known side effects or contraindications for its use.
So, enjoy the many benefits of lavender. And relax.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.