English Lavender: History, Culinary Uses, Varieties and Nutrition
Lavender is the favorite herb of many, and not without good reason. After all, it looks amazing, smells great and has numerous uses around the home.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region, North Africa, India, the Middle East and western Asia. The ancient Egyptians were one of the earliest civilizations known to have utilized lavender. They mixed oil of lavender with asphalt and used it to soak linen, which was wrapped around the dead. The corpses were left out in the sun to harden, forming mummification casts. It’s believed the name lavender is derived from the Latin word lavandula, meaning lavo or to wash. The Romans used lavender water perfume to wash by adding it to their bathwater. They also used it to repel mosquitoes and to clean wounds. As a result the Romans took this useful herb with them and the its propagation spread throughout the Roman empire, which is how it was introduced to Britain.
In medieval times lavender was highly prized for its uses in masking foul odors and the belief that it could ward of contagious diseases. The cultivation of French lavender and the production of lavender oil became popular in France during the 17th century where the essential oil was used in the perfume industry.
Lavender comes from the Lamiaceae botanical family, commonly known as the mint family. Some of the worlds best varieties of lavender are English lavender, also known as true lavender, common lavender and old English lavender. The oil extracted from hybrid English lavender varieties are most commonly used in the cosmetics industry. In particular for the production of soaps, perfumes and hair conditioners. English lavender varieties include;
Lavender ‘Sawyers’ or sawyers lavender is a hybrid of L.lanata and L. angustifolia. It has a strong scent with dark blue or purple flowers.
Hidcote lavender; botanical name, lavandula angustifolia is a reliably hardy perennial that is often used for hedges and borders. This plants flowers bloom in summers, when they are deep purple or blue in color.
Munstead lavender has a wonderful scent and is extremely hardy. It grows in short bunches no more 18 inches tall and so is often used for hedges. The color of its flowers are sometimes described as true lavender blue.
Lady lavender is a hardy perennial which flowers consistently in its first year, even when it is grown from seed. Lady lavender, botanical name L. angustifolia Lady, has won the prestigious AAS ( All American Selections) award for its superior qualities.
Old English lavender is a hybrid of two varieties. L. latifolia ( spike lavender) and L. angustifolia. This plants hardy pale blue flowers are the most important commercial crop for essential oil in the cosmetics industry.
Culinary Uses of Lavender: In terms of its culinary uses, dried lavender is best known as an ingredient in herbes de Provence, the classic herb mix used in the cuisine of southwestern France. The traditional recipe is a combination of dried lavender blossoms, fennel, basil, thyme and savory. Only a small amount of lavender should be added to herbes de Provence because its flavor is so intense and sometimes bitter. Dried Lavender leaves are added to strongly flavored meats before cooking, especially lamb. Lavender blossoms are also used to flavor desserts such as ice cream and lavender flavored honey. Some people also make tea with lavender leaves. Because lavender has antiseptic properties it can also be used to clean kitchen surfaces and cutting boards.
The Nutritional Value of Lavender: Lavender contains over one hundred known compounds including a number of phytochemicals or antioxidants. The most prevalent of which is limonene, a type of terpenes. Linonene, also found in citrus peel, stimulates digestive enzymes in the liver which helps detoxify the liver. This in turn helps rid the body of dangerous carcinogens. Studies on animals have demonstrated that limonene can reduce tumor growth.
Another constituent of lavender is caffeic acid. Caffeic acid is nothing to do with caffeine, although it is found in coffee beans. Caffeic acid was originally thought to have been a carcinogen after it was administered to lab rats in high doses. Recent data has demonstrated otherwise and caffeic acid has been shown to have tumor shrinking and cancer inhibiting properties. Another important study combined caffeic acid with other antioxidants in high doses. The result was reduced colon tumors in mice.
One of the many constituents responsible for the fragrant scent of lavender is the group of compounds known as coumarins. Coumarins have complex multi-biological activities which are thought may benefit human health. These include anti-HIV, anti-tumor, anti-hypertension and anti-osteoporaosis. However, coumarins are also moderately toxic and experts recommend not to consume more than 0.1 mg per day. Exceeding this amount, it’s thought, could cause liver and kidney damage.
Medicinal Uses for Lavender: Lavender essential oils and lavender flowers have numerous uses in traditional folk medicine. These include; for the treatment of rheumatism, colic, flatulence, headaches and to treat stings, sprains and cuts. Never consume lavender essential oil, especially in large amounts over a prolonged period. Lavender essential oil has poisonous narcotic effects and has been known to cause death. Instead use the herb itself to prepare lavender tea. Lavender tea is known to have sedative effects that aid rest and sleep.