Family: Labiatae (Lamiaceae) Contains square or rectangular stems.
Species: Consists of over 30 small shrubs or herbs, 200-300 varieties
Lavender's Blue (dilly dilly)
June and July is the lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) season in my part of the world. My house was built just over a hundred years ago. The builders would have witnessed a thriving industry, the heart of global lavender production. In July and August, most of the surrounding countryside would have been a purple haze of lavender flowers. Lavender from Mitcham, Carshalton, Wallington, Banstead and surrounding areas was shipped not only to the fine shops of London, but all around the world.
Yardley the well-known fragrance house is strongly associated with lavender. As early as 1770, Yardley used the herb's fragrance in soaps. In 1910 Yadley opened a shop in New Bond Street, using lavender bought from Mitcham.
Lavender-growing in this area -- the chalk uplands a few miles south of London -- reached a peak in the late-Victorian years, declining with the first world war as the lavender fields were converted to food production. It never recovered from that and was then almost destroyed when cheap lavender was imported from the south of France. Meanwhile, the expansion of London due to the railways soaked up agricultural land, converting it to domestic housing.
Many of the former lavender fields were given to the men returning from the war, and they did not grow lavender. Instead, they used the fields as smallholdings to keep livestock and grow potatoes and other food crops. Today, the black clap-board houses built at the time still survive, along with the smallholdings. A few have been turned into commercial nurseries, which have thrived as the area has evolved into a wealthy commuter town for London.
The last main lavender harvest was in 1933. Over the last decade, however two or three new, organic operations have started up in the area, taking advantage once more, of the slightly alkaline free-draining chalk soil of the south downs. Lavender does not notice the passing of a century or two. Soil and microclimate which once took Banstead lavender to far-flung corners of the empire, still persist. Once more, lavender from these fields is finding its way half way around the world. Now, however, it is the internet which is bringing the new markets, rather than the wealthy wives of British businessmen and administrators.
When I am king (dilly dilly)
You shall be queen.
A 10-minute walk from my house is a small square of urban farm; the home of Carshalton Lavender which is a community project based in Carshalton. Each year around the end of July, there is a harvest. It is a community affair, with locals going into the field and selecting enough of the delicate, purple flowers for a large bunch or bucket. There is a barbeque tent and displays and cookies for sale and lavender oil and all kinds of things. It's low-key, but part of the local calendar.
In the early 1990s, the three-acre site was a derelict allotment, used mostly as a fly-tip and for local youths to drink and otherwise find a quiet place to mis-spend their time. From 1999 onwards, it was used to grow lavender, with the area cultivated expanding each year as more of the plot was cleared and prepared for cultivation. A local prison (HMP Downview) has supplied some of the labour with prisoners on day-release doing the hard work.
Another local project is more commercial. Mayfield Lavender. This project has been going for about 4 years, and aims to be completely organic. In March this year (2008) it was awarded full organic status certified by the Soil Association.
We walked up there last weekend and the kids were invited to go on a mini-beast hunt, to seek out and destroy the lavender beetle. This is a pest which destroys both lavender and rosemary. It is well-camouflaged on Rosemary, but much less so on lavender.
We didn't find any of the beetles, but walking through the rows of purple lavender, one could hear a constant, low drone. Bees. Millions of bees feeding on the newly-opened flowers. Bumblebees, honey bees, and all kinds of other insects all contributing to a low, friendly hum of focussed activity.
Who told you so, (dilly dilly)
Who told you so?
Lavender appears to be native to Mesopotamia (currently Iraq) and there are records going back to well before the time of Christ showing that lavender was used as a perfume and also as an antiseptic and during the mummification process in ancient Egypt. It is thought that the medieval Persians perfected the art of distilling the oil from the plant.
The Romans left good records and it is clear from diaries and stories that by Roman times, lavender plants and lavender oils were in widespread use as bath oils, scents and antiseptics.
Lavender came to the UK with the Romans and historical records show that by the 15th century, it was in widepsread cultivation from Wales to southern England. By this time the main use was as a strewing herb -- it was strewn across floors and pavements to overcome foul odours and disinfect noxious residues. The antiseptic qualities of lavender came to the fore during the great plague that swept Europe in the 17th century, when it was rumoured that it would keep the plague at bay.
'Twas my own heart (dilly dilly)
That told me so
Lavender oil is, chemically speaking, a particularly complicated molecule, said to be the most complex of all the essential oils, yet it is also one of the smallest molecules, which makes it quite volatile. Jars of the oil should be kept tightly closed.
Yet it is one of the few essential oils which can be used at full strength on the skin. It is said to be calming and is used to reduce anxiety. Most agree that it is antiseptic and anti-bacterial and many use it directly on cuts and stings to ease the pain.
karma debt says:Lavender is in the Song of Solomon and has also been shown to have a negative effect of gynecomastia in boys. But, oh, how I love lavender.
The celebrated herbalist Nicholas Culpeper recommended lavender oil, as a drink or applied to the temples or nostrils, against “the griefs and pains of the head and brains that proceed of a cold cause, as the Apoplexy, Falling-sickness, the drowsie or sluggish malady, Cramps, Convulsions, Palsies, and often faintings.”
Our own resident restauranteur, shaogo says:Lavender of the edible kind is an essential ingredient (among others) to a good Tuscan herb-scented bread-dipping oil. The other herbs, in olive oil, are basil, marjoram, chervil; some people add garlic).
Sources, further information