The fields of lavender in the Santa Ynez valley (and one would presume in Provence and elsewhere throughout the world where the herb grows wild) are in full bloom. Bundles of fresh lavender perfume our local farmers’ markets, in Santa Barbara and Santa Fe, where stalls sell everything lavender from oils, soaps, bath salts, sachets, and perfumes to lavender honey, cookies, and vinaigrettes.
Lavender, a flowering evergreen related to the mint family, has been prized for centuries not only for its clean and pleasing fragrance–the Romans bathed in lavender scented water and the name derives from the Latin lavare, meaning to wash–but for its many health benefits and healing properties as well. In traditional herbal medicine the volatile oil or aqueous infusion act when used topically as an astringent and antiseptic for minor abrasions and sunburn. Inhaling its aroma or drinking the infusion as a tissane or tea reportedly aids in relief of mild depression, nervousness, tension, anxiety, and is even said to promote calm and restful sleep. Preliminary studies suggest it may even have beneficial effects on cholesterol and blood sugar, although it’s possible these effects could derive from stress reduction or just getting a calm and restful sleep.
Most of the scientific research generated on herbals and botanicals comes from Europe and the UK, where establishment belief in the efficacy of plant extracts is much more prevalent. I was able to unearth medical studies on a variety of topics, many of which were German or Korean and either not available as abstracts, or not available in English. (Since I’m not a reader of either of those languages, you will not find links to them here.) Its sedative qualities, especially, have been the subject of recent medical research aiming to prove or disprove the claims–and there are papers that speak to both biases on the topic. One study from the UK, seems to document the calming effects of inhaled aroma of lavender oil in a hospital setting in a group of aggressive and combative patients with dementia. Just think what it might do for those of us who are just a little out of sorts. My very unscientific two-cents says it smells great, so why not give it a try? As we have done in a variety of locales, grow yourself a pot or two of it or in a temperate climate, plant some, harvest the stalks, and treat yourself to a sheaf of it beside your bed.
The plant is hardy (attested to by the fact that even I can grow it) and once established is quite drought resistant and will make a lovely addition to your herb garden, for both smelling and cooking. Because most recipes use only a teaspoon or two of dried lavender flowers, even a small pot’s worth will get you by for that purpose.
I found a few good tips on cooking with lavender in an archived article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, although except for the vinaigrette and herbs de provence, the recipes are not carb friendly. They’re not even carb conscious, but they can be made that way, which task I will set myself over the next little bit and get back to you with my progress. For more extensive reading on growing and cooking with lavender I would recommend Robert Kourik’s The Lavender Garden: Beautiful Varieties to Grow and Gather and Shirley Shipley’s The Lavender Cookbook both really beautiful books.