Notes from the Apothecary: Lavender
I have several types of lavender growing in my garden. Some I bought as tiny plants, but the most virile is the one I grew from seed. It took three attempts to get a viable plant from seed, but, as they say, third time’s the charm! This one is gradually taking over a small space in the garden, and at this time of year, as we head towards midsummer, the blooms are producing that unmistakeable aroma. Many associate the smell of lavender with their nana, or old women on general, but I think this is because it is one of the few perfumes that never goes out of fashion. People have been using lavender to freshen their rooms or scent themselves since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. Hopefully this article will give you some insight into what else you can use this beautiful, fragrant herb for.
The Kitchen Garden
The word Lavender stems from the Latin word lavare which means ‘to wash’. It is no surprise then that the majority of the time you find lavender in use around the house it is as part of a cleaning product! Lavender soap is popular all over the world, and many household products use the natural oil to perfume their products. Fabric fresheners, spray cleaners, mopping solutions, hand-wash and even washing up liquid all use the potent oil, which has some anti-bacterial effects as well as the ability to cover even quite strong smells.
Lavender can also be used in cooking, although you have to take into account the strong, floral notes and ensure they balance with something equally robust. Lamb and lavender is a delicious combo, as the richness of the lamb carries the flowery scent well. Lavender in ice cream is also nice, although somewhat of an acquired taste.
As a Medicine
As early as 64CE, lavender was cited as being ‘good for ye griefs and thorax’ (effective for anxiety and the chest) by Greek physician Dioskourides, whose herbal knowledge for the time was second to none after documenting all the herbs he found while travelling with the Roman Emperor Nero’s army. In the third book of his Materia Medica he also tells us it is ‘useful mixed with antidotes’, suggesting it is a booster or catalyst for other medicines.
The Rosa Anglica tells us Lavender is good for the digestion, although it was referred to in this 14th century text as Wood Sage or Mountain Sage. The same text also recommends bathing in a concoction of herbs, including ‘wood sage’, for the treatment of gout, however it also recommends scrubbing the body with water that an entire fox has been boiled in, so make what you will of that! Ew…
Lavender is also indicated as a diuretic (urine inducing, to use the language of the time), so it was used as a treatment for dropsy.
Nowadays we use lavender as a natural deodorant, a mild antiseptic, analgesic and also for repelling bugs, particularly house and clothes moths. One of the most potent effects lavender has is as a soporific: a sleep inducing ingredient. A bath with lavender oil in will send you to bed drowsy and relaxed, and if you are having trouble sleeping, two drops of the oil on a tissue, under your pillow will make a huge difference. Alternatively, burn some in an oil burner in your bedroom an hour before going to bed.
Science Tells Us…
…that lavender also has anti-fungal properties. Presumably this would make it effective as a treatment for athlete’s foot or ringworm, but bear in mind a strong concentration of the oil can dry the skin out or even cause irritation.
Not all lavenders are created equal. Certain species have far stronger anti-bacterial properties than others, and some are more effective against certain bacteria but weaker against others. When you buy lavender oil, it is very unlikely that the species of lavender will be noted on the bottle. The only way to be sure what you are truly getting? Grow your own, and experiment to find what it is most effective against.
A 2004 study in Hong Kong proved that inhalation of lavender oil combine with acupressure had a significant therapeutic effect on lower back pain. It was hypothesised that this was a psychological response, due to the relaxing nature of the oil. As far as I’m concerned, if you feel less pain, then psychological or not, that’s a fantastic medicine!
In the Witches Kitchen
Lavender is strongly associated with love magic, however when combined with rosemary, it was thought that the herbs would protect a woman’s chastity. Perhaps the men were scared off by the powerful smell! Conversely, prostitutes used to wear lavender to attract customers.
Lavender has a masculine aspect, perhaps due to the phallic appearance of the flower spikes. It is also, however, associated with the planet Mercury, which is considered androgynous (neither male or female, or both) by astrologers. So when using lavender as a herb in incense or as a spell ingredient, it is perhaps wise to see it as genderless, and concentrate on the other aspects of the plant.
Mercury is the planet of communication, which perhaps tells us why lavender is a ‘love’ herb; love cannot exist without honest communication. Mercury is also the messenger god, a trickster and a mischief maker. He is associated with wit, cunning and intelligence. Lavender can be used to infuse your magic with some of these aspects. The flowers can be burned in an incense to help you meditate on the most logical solution to a problem. The oil burned in a room during ritual can keep mischief and negative influence outside the circle you are working in, and will also focus any communication with the divine, or indeed, each other.
For You to Try at Home
Lavender should always be harvested at the full moon, when the flowers are fat and full of oil. Place your fingers on the stem beneath the flower, and drag your hand upwards, separating the flowers from the plant. Have a bowl on hand, and if possible, cover the flowers immediately to stop the oil evaporating. A bowl of the flowers on a table in your living area will gradually dry out, making the room smell beautiful and welcoming as it does. It naturally creates a calm space that welcomes guests and makes them feel at home.
If the flowers are too damp they may moulder if kept contained, so either use within a few days or dry them out for later use. When using dry flowers the oil and scent is less potent.
Scatter lavender around the outer boundary of your home chanting
Home and hearth
Joy and heart
Space of mine
This will encourage mischievous elements to stay outside the boundaries of your home, and will reinforce that your space is yours alone, and only those welcomed by you can enter.
Finally, one thing you didn’t know about Lavender…
Because it was widely available, lavender was used as an anti-bacterial agent in field hospitals during World War I. Recent studies by University of Glasgow have shown that lavender fights even antibiotic resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus so the medics of the time had good instincts!