Lavender has a heady history that stems back at least 2,500 years, from the tombs of Egyptian kings and Cleopatra’s boudoir, via monasteries and manor houses, to the commercially grown lavender fields of today. Pressing a specimen is a great way to preserve a piece of this aromatic backstory
Common name: Lavender
Species: Including Lavandula angustifolia (English or True lavender), Lavandula x. Intermedia (Lavandin), Lavandula stoechas (French lavender or Spanish lavender), Lavandula spica, Lavandula dentata (French lavender), Lavandula laifolia (Portuguese lavender) and Lavandula multifida (Egyptian or Spike lavender)
Native: Countries bordering the Mediterranean
Flowering season (UK): July to September
Ah lavender, not only a joy to behold as spring finally gives way to purple swathes of summer but oh what a scent. Lavender quite literally encourages you to breathe in – something we humans are supposed to automatically do but have a tendency to be somewhat shallow about – and restore the air in our lungs with its fresh, clean restorative scent.
We have several clumps of what is commonly known as English or True lavender – Lavandula angustifolia – in our garden. They’re not particularly well-tended clumps but given a light prune of early shoots in spring, some full sunshine, and a little space to spread they usually find a way to come into their own. The budding leaves and flowers provide a soft, silvery grey contrast to areas of verdant green, gently blooming into a cloud of delicate purple spires that reach up and out to kiss the sun.
Even with half a space within which to flourish you can tell that this species of lavender bush wants to make a mounded circle, it’s optimum height and spread from around 30cm to 1m high to 30cm to 1.5m wide. Lavender’s therapeutic and welcoming scent and the inherent roundness of the silvery purple spray make it an ideal companion to a pathway or border edge, something we can hopefully put into action in our front garden one day. This nectar-rich flower is also a great attractor of bees and butterflies and naturally repels snails, slugs and aphids. What’s not to like?
A member of 39 known species of flowering plants in the mint family Lamiaceae (also including thyme, savory, salvia and of course mint), it is widely accepted that lavender gets its name from the Latin word Lavandula stemming from the word lavare ‘to wash’, alluding to the Romans’ practice of using lavender to scent their bathwater. They also found how to extract lavender’s essential oil to produce perfume, allegedly used by Cleopatra to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Historic texts show that lavender has been used as a religious and medicinal plant since ancient times – at least as far back as 2,500 years ago – with a wide range of applications. The ancient Egyptians used it to embalm corpses and in solid cones of aromatic ungent that the men would place upon their heads which thus melted to perfume their bodies. The ancient Greeks would place similar perfumes on their feet so the scent would waft upwards. The Romans used it to clean and dress wounds, to fumigate rooms and as incense in religious ceremonies, and to incite passions and relieve headaches, indigestion and sore throats, as detailed in Dioscordes five-volume herbal De Materia Medica. And via this text and various Roman conquests the various properties of lavender spread around the world.
Two such conquests led to the establishment of ‘English’ lavender in England and the purple paradise of Provence’s ‘French’ lavender fields. In the middle ages lavender was little used in England expect by monks and nuns who were charged with growing vegetables, medicinal plants, flowers and trees as cited in 1301 in the records of Merton Priory in what is now London’s Colliers Wood. Lavender was grown here to raise money for King Edward I and the surrounding areas of Mitcham, Carshalton, Wallington and Sutton would eventually form the centre of lavender production in England.
When King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, lavender made its way into domestic gardens where it was sewn into bags and cushions, mixed with beeswax to produce furniture polish and grown outside laundry rooms so clothes and linen could be spread over the bushes to absorb the fresh odour of lavender while drying. Queen Elizabeth I drank litres of the stuff as a tea and by the 17th century it was widely accepted as a ‘cure-all’ appearing in texts by all the great herbalists including Gerard, Parkinson and Culpepper. Street sellers of lavender began to appear, with prices high during the Plague when the plants antiseptic properties were thought to ward off the disease.
By Victorian times, with the blessing of ardent lavender fan Queen Victoria, English lavender enjoyed global fame, inspiring communities in places as far afield as the US and Australia to grow their own commercial crops. Sadly England’s radiant lavender fields fell foul of a nasty fungal disease and by the end of World War I most commercial growers gave in to attractive offers from urban developers who had long sought to capitalize on their land. The fields were dug up, the workers displaced and cries of ‘Who will buy my sweet blooming lavender’ relegated to the archives.
At the same time growers in Provence began to establish larger fields of lavender to supply the burgeoning perfume industry around Grasse. Huge swathes of lavender now populate this area of France, a combination of True lavender (L. angustifolia) and also Lavandin (Lavandula x. intermedia a hybrid of L. angustifolia and spike lavender L. latifolia) prized for its abundant ‘industrial strength’ essential oil. The fields turn a deep purple in June and July before crops are harvested for perfume, soaps, cosmetics and – in modern times – aromatherapy, as coined by French Chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé in his pioneering 1937 volume Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentilles hormones végétales (also known as Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy). Gattefossé’s interest in essential oils was piqued when he burned his hand in his lab and found it healed much faster and without scarring after he plunged his hand into a nearby and very convenient vat of lavender oil.
Thankfully England’s glorious countryside is once again turning deep purple in parts too thanks to the resurgence of interest in lavender as a modern herbal, aromatherapy and culinary ingredient. It’s good to have a little slice of this stabilizing wonder plant in our lives both in the garden and, during uncertain times, as a flourishing and uplifting homegrown industry.
In the press //
English lavender (L. angustifolia) has long leafless stems with nodding purple heads that measure around 2–8 cm each. Look more closely (as one is want to do when pressing) and you’ll see each purple spike is comprised of many tiny, five-petalled purple/pink flowers that come into bloom in succession. The name L. angustfolia comes from the Latin for ‘narrow leaf’, describing the thin evergreen, silvery grey leaves at the base of the stem. This species of lavender looks best as it grows, placing the stems naturalistically in the press. Curving the stems slightly before you replace the uppermost drying sheet can enhance this naturalistic appearance. A few stems side by side with leaves incorporated can also beautifully mimic lavender as found in nature. The big reveal some 2–3 weeks later not only produces beautiful pressings it also releases lavender’s wonderful scent.
Experiment with other species of lavender such as what is commonly known as French or Spanish lavender (L. stoechas). This lavender has distinctive tufted butterfly-like flowers on the end of 4–8 mm sterile bracts (no flowers between them), most commonly as a pink-purple bloom atop a mauve-coloured spike. The leaves are slightly greener and stems can be shorter. Pressing this species of lavender can therefore work well for cards and smaller displays.
Experiment with different colours and sizes of lavender – always fun to introduce a new species or cultivar of plant into your garden. The range is more diverse than many people think from the larger heads of L. x. Intermedia ‘Impress Purple’ to the white or red flowers of L. stoechas ‘Ballerina’, or ‘Kew Red’ or pretty pink of L. angustifolia ‘Miss Katherine’. Tried and tested lavenders that work well in the English garden include L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ and strongly scented L. x. Intermedia ‘Grosso’.
If you want to harvest lavender for fragrance sachets or dried bouquets, pick before it’s fully in bloom so it doesn’t fall apart and to keep scent for longer. Secure cut stems with a rubber band as they shrink as they dry – you can replace with attractive twine or ribbon later. Then hang upside down somewhere dry for 2-4 weeks. Or remove stalks and put flower heads in a box in a warm dry place, shaking each day to aerate. Rub heads later to remove individual buds. Loose buds can then be placed in sachets for drawers or linen, while whole bunches can be situated on shelves or above doors as pretty air fresheners.
Pressed or dried lavender also works well as a decorative effect on a candle. An easy and beautiful result is achieved by pouring melted beeswax into a jam jar into which you can place stalks of lavender and/or other herbs. Suspend a wick into the molten wax, tying the top bit to a cocktail stick balanced on the top until the wax has solidified. You can also fragrance with a couple of drops of lavandin oil (stronger than lavender). Any lavender placed around the edge of the jar will be immediately visible, while those a bit further in may be silhouetted as the light glows through. Finish with a bow of raffia around the top edge of the jar.
If you want to use fresh or dried lavender in cooking – for lavender sugar, syrup, baked goods, or in place of rosemary in olive oil or as a rub – choose L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’ or sweet candy-like ‘White Ice’ or ‘Rosea’. Or go for one of the strong smelling Lavandins (L. x. Intermedia) such as ‘Provence’, ‘Grosso’ or ‘Seal’. L. dentate and L. stoechas lavenders are pretty but tend to be too strong and bitter for culinary purposes.