Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lavender: Little known uses (and recipes!) from France

Lavender is an emblematic plant that grows extensively through southern France. It is both native to the area and has been cultivated there for centuries. 

Lavender has been popularized through its use as an essential oil, but it has many uses as a simple herb as well. 

Historical use of Lavender
Lavender has a long history of use. We have written evidence of it being used as far back as 2,500 years ago but, assuredly, it was used much longer than this. It has such a strong pleasing smell as well as a variety of medicinal uses, which makes it an easy herb to use and adore. 

It is native to the mediterranean area and it was used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. 

Energetically: the Unani Tibb classifies lavender as being hot and dry in the first degree.  Its flavor is bitter and aromatic. 

Lavender has a long history of use as a wash. Besides its nice scent it is strongly antimicrobial. So while it is leaving a pleasant scent it is also preventing or addressing infections from bacteria and fungi. Lavender makes a wonderful wash for cuts, wounds, and burns.

Herbalist and Saint Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098-1179, used it for migraines, which is one of the ways it is used today. 

European royalty loved lavender. Charles the VI of France was said to require lavender-filled pillows on his bed every night. (I'll take that!)

Louis XIV also loved lavender and bathed in lavender-scented water. 

Lavender is native to Provence. The hot sunny and dry climate of southern France makes Provence a perfect region for growing lavender and it is one of the top producers of the world’s lavender. 

Maurice Mességué, a French herbalist, reminisces about lavender in his book Health Secrets of Plants and Herbs.

My mother’s linen cupboard was steeped in lavender. When they unfolded the big sheets that lay on the shelves there, it was as if a little bit of Paradise had come down to earth. 

Maurice tells a story of when his dog was bitten by a viper. He said his dad rubbed lavender onto the bite and it cured the venomous bite. 

He also recommends a poultice over the liver to help this organ do its “vital works”. 

Another interesting French use of this herb is as frictions on the chest as it can speed up the treatment of pneumonia and pulmonary congestion. 

Harvesting tips
Maurice recommends picking the lavender on the morning of a hot summer day. He says after harvesting the lavender it should be pruned back to a low round to ensure a good harvest the following year. 

Lavender should be harvested just as it is going to flower. That is when it will be the most aromatic. 

Modern Uses of Lavender
Like many mint-family plants, it is used for digestive problems, flatulence, bloating, and loss of appetite. A tea works well for this. 

Lavender aromatics are especially helpful for nervousness and insomnia. Deborah Francis, herbalist and ND in Oregon says she uses lavender pillows for the elderly with insomnia. 

Herbalist David Winston says lavender is specific for stagnant depression, which he defines as “a situational depression often associated with emotional trauma. The patient seems to be “stuck” on this event, replaying it over and over in their minds”.

Lavender is a fabulous herb for bug bites. It can reduce itching and inflammation and prevent infection. For this purpose it can be used as a tea, a salve, a poultice or as an essential oil. 

Culinary Recipes using Lavender
The following is some of my favorite ways to use lavender in the kitchen! 

Les Herbes de Provence is a popular culinary herb blend that typically contains a mixture of the following herbs: savory, fennel, basil, thyme and lavender.  

This blend is used on all sorts of savory foods, from meats to veggies. When I lived in France years ago it was used liberally on one of my favorite sandwiches at my neighborhood cafe. 

I love to add lavender to my black tea blends. A little goes a long way. I recommend starting with just a few small flowers and then working up until you get the lovely lavender taste without too much bitterness. 

Lavender infuses into milks and creams really well. Lavender ice cream and lavender crème brûlée are delicious! 

My husband, Xavier, makes a wonderful traditional French dessert called Iles Flottantes, which means floating islands. 

Iles Flottantes is a lavender-infused custard with a lavender-infused meringue floating on top. My favorite dessert! 

Botanical Review of Lavender
Many varieties and hybrids of Lavender exist. Lavandula angustifolia is what is most often used as medicine. It used to be named Lavandula officinalis and you’ll still see that reference in older herbals. 

It's a member of the mint family and like most mints it is strongly aromatic. It can grow as high as 1 to 2 meters  or 3-6 feet tall. The leaves are evergreen.  The flowers are pinkish-purple (lavender-coloured), produced on spikes at the top of slender, leafless stems. 

Please Share! 

Do you have a favorite way to enjoy lavender? Please share in the comments! 

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