lavender bunch

Of all the simples in the botanical kingdom, few hold such a place of reverence in the gardens and hearts of herbal enthusiasts as lavender. It’s graceful beauty, peppery fragrance, and potent therapeutic properties have made this herb a staple in the kitchen, bath, and medicine cabinet. In fact, lavender has been used for centuries to lift mood, induce sleep, and to relieve anxiety and mild depression. But, did you also know that lavender helps to clear stubborn acne, reduce arthritis pain, heal burns, and repel insects?

Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is a Mediterranean native that shares its genus with nearly 40 other species belonging to the mint family. There is extraordinary variety among species and cultivars in terms of hardiness, size, and the color of blooms. In fact, the flower spikes, which appear in full bloom in mid-summer, may be white, pink, bluish purple, or the distinctive hue named in honor of this herb—lavender.

The flowers are highly aromatic due to a high concentration of linalool, a terpene alcohol that lends the blooms a floral, yet spicy fragrance. The telltale scent is well known to those who practice the art of aromatherapy, and the dried flowers and essential oil are valued for the ability to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and headaches. The flowers are also a traditional ingredient in natural bath and beauty products, including soap, bath sachets, creams, lotions, shampoo, and tonics for hair and skin. In fact, lavender’s reputation for cleansing the body and spirit appears to live up to its name, which is derived from the Latin lavare, meaning, “to wash.” This character reference was even spun into an advertising campaign launched years ago for Yardley Lavender Soap: The soap that’s kept women in hot water for 200 years—and they’ve loved every minute.

Of course, the use of the flowers and essential oil is not reserved for the home herbalist. In fact, lavender is grown on a commercial scale for the purpose of supplying the perfume industry. The majority of oil is obtained from L. vera, a variety that thrives in the arid and rocky mountainous regions of the Mediterranean. French lavender probably comes in second among commercial crops. However, English lavender is the real prize when it comes to yielding the best fragrance, which explains why the oil obtained from this species has a market value an average of ten times greater than that of other varieties.

Lavender is also celebrated as a medicinal herb, where its uses are many and well documented. In particular, lavender oil is renowned for effectively treating burns, including sunburn. This attribute was made famous in the early 1900s by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a chemist who accidentally set himself aflame while working in the laboratory of the cosmetics company owned by his family. After extinguishing the flames by rolling on the ground outside, he returned to the lab and plunged his burned hands into the liquid he knew would bring relief—a vat of lavender oil. He was not only rewarded with the immediate cessation of pain, but the burns healed very quickly and without scarring. The name Gattefossé is still significant since the company continues to produce lipids and botanical extracts in the south of France today. René-Maurice, in particular, is remembered because he passionately promoted his theory that botanical oils have a psychological impact on the body, as he learned first-hand that fateful day in the lab. Of this aspect, he wrote, “... essential oils possess anti-toxic and antiviral properties, have a powerful vitalizing action, and undeniable healing power and extensive therapeutic properties.” Thus, he not only influenced the medical mindset of his time, but also earned the distinction of being dubbed the Father of Aromatherapy.

Aromatherapists also recommend inhalation therapy with lavender essential oil to relieve headache, break up congestion association with respiratory disorders, reduce anxiety, stimulate mental alertness, and to calm various nervous conditions. In fact, formulations made from the flowers are approved by the Commission E and often prescribed in European countries for these and other maladies. Aromatherapists have also long known that lavender acts on the nervous system, thereby promoting and enhancing the quality of sleep, a mechanism supported by several scientific studies. Modern science notwithstanding, however, weary mothers have sewn the flowers into dream pillows to help lull their fitful babes to sleep for centuries. As far as lavender’s restorative properties go, one only needs to turn to literature for anecdotal evidence. For instance, the 19th century Scottish poet and dramatist, Joanna Baillie, made this reference in The Election, published in 1798: “I'm sure if I had not put lavender on my pocket-handkerchief, like Mama, I should have fainted away.” The character, Polly, of Somerset’s A Day After the Fair laid a similar claim with, “Dead! Our best friend, our patron, dead! Where is my pocket-handkerchief, and my spirits of lavender?”

As our friend Gattefossé noted, the topical application of lavender oil appears to offer pain relief. When diluted with a carrier oil, such as jojoba or sweet almond, and applied during massage, lavender eases joint conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. The oil is increasingly finding its way into mainstream medicine as a means of regulating pain associated with surgical procedures. This trend may stem from a recent study that found that follow-up inhalation therapy with lavender oil significantly reduced pain in patients having undergone surgical breast biopsy. Lavender is also helpful to treat a variety of skin conditions due to possessing antiviral, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties. When combined with witch hazel, it makes an excellent remedy for stubborn acne. Many eczema sufferers also report finding relief from dryness and itching by massaging diluted lavender essential oil onto the skin. The oil is also formulated into salves and balms to treat wounds, cuts, and scrapes. It is also an effective insect repellent. As the herbalist Salmon wrote of lavender in 1710, “…it is good also against the bitings of serpents, mad-dogs and other venomous creature, being given inwardly and applied poultice-wise to the parts wounded.” Hopefully, creatures of this sort will never visit your backyard, but if keeping mosquitoes and other biting insects at bay is your goal, then reach for some lavender essential oil .