Laura Dean Bennett
Everyone knows about lavender.
Its delicate flowers are a lovely shade of – well, lavender – and it’s most famous for its intoxicating fragrance.
We think of lavender as either a flower or an herb, but it’s technically a perennial shrub – perhaps, the queen of shrubs.
She’s the sweetest flowering member of the wild mint family, originally found in the Mediterranean region, the Middle East and India.
For centuries, she’s been the star of herb gardens, the royal scent and bringer of beauty and good health in many cultures. Famous for its soothing, relaxing scent, it has been used in perfumes for skin and hair.
It was also dried into a powder, and made into tinctures and teas to treat hyperactivity, insomnia, head- aches, toothaches, sore joints and upset digestive systems.
A wealthy Roman family would have used lavender to scent the air in their domus, or home, and it was used in their cooking, too.
It also lent its sweet scent to their face washing and their bath water.
In fact, the name “lavender” comes from the Latin verb lavare – meaning, “to wash.”
Throughout the centuries, clothes were washed in lavender water and laid to dry on lavender bushes.
One of the herbs mentioned in the New Testament is spikenard, a Greek word for lavender.
England’s Queen Elizabeth I expected there to be lavender “conserve” or jam at every meal and fresh or dried lavender stems in vases in her rooms all year around.
In the 16th century, glove makers in France who were licensed to perfume their gloves with lavender, were said to have survived a terrible cholera outbreak.
It was sold in bunches by street vendors and used as a remedy for the plague in London and Europe in the 17th century.
In Renaissance France, women who took in washing for hire were known as “lavenders,” while Victorian ladies favored lavender in their pillows for its sweet and dreamy scent.
Queen Victoria loved the fragrance of lavender and may have believed in its medicinal value.
The Yardley Company, which later became known as Yardley of London, made lavender its signature fragrance making it synonymous with royal favor as the company received its first of many royal warrants in 1921.
Of course, lavender came to the New World with the British and European colonists and was grown everywhere – especially in the gardens of the colonies’ great houses.
The Shakers are believed to have been among the first early Americans to grow lavender commercially for a variety of products and medicines.
The leaves and blossoms which grow along its woody stems give off such a delicious aroma as to be almost irresistible.
Lavender is used fresh, dried and as an essential oil and it is used in all manner of products.
It’s a favorite candle and room spray fragrance and found in everything from household cleaning products to food products. It’s found in almost every home – from the kitchen cupboard to the medicine chest.
The old belief in lavender as a sleep aid is now beginning to find support among the scientific community, for instance, according to a study at Wesleyan University, inhaling lavender before sleep increased the percentage of deep or slow-wave sleep in both men and women. And all of the study subjects reported waking with more energy the next morning.
There are many varieties of lavender, and several of them are known to thrive in Pocahontas County.
It’s found here in herb gardens, kitchen gardens, flower beds, flower pots and on farms.
This lovely and functional plant is easy to grow. It needs full sun, good drainage and soil with a high pH. It will tolerate poor, rocky soil, neglect and even drought – once it is established – but lavender will not tolerate a wet environment.
Locally grown lavender is usually harvested in September.
For best results, cut lavender stems (the longer, the better) in the morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day’s heat sets in.
Lavender stems can be used for fresh bouquets, or hung to dry and used for dried arrangements. The leaves and flowers are dried and crumbled into potpourri or sachets or dried and stored for cooking or as a lovely, aromatic tea.
Lavender is edible, although because of its strong fragrance, it’s used sparingly in cooking. Chop it fine and add it in tiny pinches to meat dishes, sauces or baked goods.
It makes a wonderful addition to jellies, cakes and cookies, and it’s also a surprising ingredient in the savory spice blend called Herbes de Provence.
A few sprigs of lavender make a delightfully fragrant addition to any table – morning, noon or night.
Like its classic fragrance, the mystique of lavender is timeless. Bring its beauty into your life in any form, and let it work its magic.
To get the benefit of fresh lavender all summer long, grow your own and “gather ye lavender while ye may.”
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. grated orange zest
2 tsp. fresh lavender flowers (or 1 tsp. dried)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 egg, slightly beaten
2/3 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, salt, zest, and lavender. Cut in butter until mixture resembles cornmeal. Stir in egg and buttermilk with a fork. Turn dough onto a floured board and knead gently but briefly (don’t over knead). Divide in half and pat each piece into a 3/4-inch-thick round. Cut each round into six wedges and place them 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes – or until golden. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Mix into 1/2 cup fresh local honey – 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water and a Tbsp. of dried lavender blossoms. While warm, pour it over ice cream or fresh berries, or use it as a glaze for roasted root vegetables or poultry. Store in an airtight glass container in the refrigerator. Best used within a week or two.
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar
2 Tbsp. fresh lavender flowers, chopped fine (or 1 Tbsp. dried)
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint (or 1 tsp. dried)
1 tsp. lemon juice
2-1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
Cream butter and add next 5 ingredients. Mix by hand, or with electric mixer on low, until light and fluffy. Add the last 3 ingredients and mix well. Divide dough in half, flatten, cover and chill until firm. (You can also roll dough into a log, chill and then slice.) Preheat oven to 320º. Roll out to 1/2” thickness on floured surface and cut into 1-1/2” circles (you can also use cookie cutters). To make them fancier, press designs on top, if desired. Bake 18 to 20 minutes on parchment paper covered cookie sheets. Cool slightly and transfer to wire rack. Optional- when cool, dust lightly with powdered sugar flavored with lavender flowers.
Yields approx. 2 dozen cookies
Lavender and Herb
Encrusted Leg of Lamb
2 Tbsp. olive oil
One 7- to 10-lb. bone-in leg of lamb
2 cups red wine
1 cup chicken stock
10 sprigs fresh mint
6 sprigs fresh thyme
20 leaves fresh basil
1/8 cup ground fresh lavender
1 head of garlic, peeled and separated into whole cloves
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350º. Heat oil in large skillet; add lamb and brown on all sides. Place lamb in a deep-dish baking pan; cover with wine and stock. Score the lamb and press the herbs and garlic into the meat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast slowly in preheated oven 2 to 3 hours – until lamb is tender and starts to separate from the bone. Remove lamb from pan. Place herbs and garlic in bottom of pan; bring to a boil on the stovetop. Reduce liquid slightly, then strain to make the perfect sauce to complement the dish.
6 to 8 servings