Healthy Herb: July – Lovely Lavender

Lavender, a magnet for bees and other insects, is the queen of herbs – loved for its beauty, fragrance and the sense of well-being that it imparts.

If you plant just one herb, it should be lavender, for no other herb combines so many qualities in one plant. Its beauty and fragrance are self-evident, it is a significant healing and tonic herb, it has a myriad of culinary, beauty and household uses, and can play a role as a pest-repelling plant in the garden. According to ancient records, you can even smoke it! For all that, lavender is the one herb that is least likely to be found in the herb garden. Instead, it is usually grown with roses, clipped into hedges, used to line pathways or fill containers, and can also act as a silvery grey foliage plant in the garden. As a landscape plant, it is one of the best, and when in flower, it is breathtaking. Gardeners travel halfway around the world to view the lavender fields of France and Britain. Even in a domestic garden, a lavender bush in full flower stands out as a feature.

Five tips for growing lavender

This Mediterranean herb likes cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers, making it ideal for Western Cape gardens. That doesn’t mean it can’t grow successfully elsewhere, even in hot, wet, summer-rainfall areas.

  • Plant lavender in a sunny position where it receives at least full morning or afternoon sun.
  • Make sure the soil drains well, adding plenty of compost and other organics. If you have clay soil, rather grow lavender in pots.
  • Space plants well enough apart so that there is adequate air movement, which prevents fungal disease. For informal planting, space bushes 45cm to 90cm apart. For hedging, plant up to 60cm apart.
  • Water well to establish and then reduce watering, especially during a rainy period.
  • If possible, water at root level rather than with overhead sprinklers. This prevents the hot, wet humid conditions that lavender dislikes.

Keeping lavender in shape

Prevent lavender from getting woody by pruning after flowering. This can add to a bush’s longevity, although most lavenders need replacing after three years, especially in summer rainfall areas. Rule to remember: After flowering, cut back by two thirds. Only cut into semi-hardwood (green stems) but not into old, brown wood. Always make sure that there are small shoots below the cut. Lavenders do not regenerate from old wood.

When to prune

Lavandula stoechas flowers mainly in spring. Prune in November after flowering.
Lavandula dentata (grey and green) should be pruned in summer when flowering slows down due to the heat.
Lavandula x intermedia (e.g. ‘Margaret Roberts’) flowers continually and some grow very large. Trim 2-3 times a year, but don’t cut back by more than a third.
Lavandula x allardii ‘African Pride’ and Lavandula allardii are hedging lavenders that can pruned at any time because they do not flower.
Lavandula pinnata, Lavandula canariensis and Lavandula multifida (fern-leaf lavender) can be cut right down after flowering in spring, or deadheaded and trimmed.

Lavender in pots

Good varieties for containers are the Lavandula dentata varieties and even the Lavandula intermedia and Lavandula allardii varieties, although they need bigger containers of at least 60cm in diameter. Place pots in a position that receives morning or afternoon sun. Water pots every day in very hot, dry and windy conditions. Fertilise 2-3 times during the growing season with a liquid fertiliser or a light granular fertiliser.

Are they lavenders?

Fern-leaf lavenders are quite unlike the conventional lavender. Their fern-like foliage produces slender spikes tipped with delicate sprays of flowers, and their wild, airy feel suits cottage-style gardens. They tolerate more shade and more water than other lavenders, although they still like well-drained soil.

Call the lavender doctor

Lavender has been used medicinally for centuries. Its anti-spasmodic, anti-septic and anti-bacterial properties make it an excellent first-aid herb for treating cuts, burns, stings, bruises, eczema, muscle cramps and pains, and even arthritis.

German nun Hildegard of Bingen (1098 -1179) used lavender water to treat migraines. A decoction of vodka, gin or brandy mixed with lavender, it should still work today.

Soothing lavender

Lavender is best known as an anti-stress herb. Its calming action acts as an anti-depressant and relieves nervous tension, insomnia, and even phobias. By stimulating blood flow, it helps to reduce headaches and migraines, which are often related to stress. Lavender’s soothing effect also works on the digestive system, relieving colic, wind and bloating.

How to use it

For internal use, drink lavender tea or make a tincture and sip small amounts 2-3 times a day. For external use, apply lavender as a poultice or make a topical cream, using a strong infusion in aqueous cream. The best remedy of all is to just inhale the strong fragrance of the flowers and leaves.

Tantalise the taste buds

Inventive cooks use lavender in both sweet and savoury dishes.

Lavender flowers stripped off the stalks and finely chopped lavender leaves can be added to meaty casseroles, soups, baked fish, oven-roasted vegetables, and rice. The secret is to use the lavender sparingly so that there is just a hint of perfume.

The fragrance of lavender particularly complements sweet dishes. Add the flowers to cold desserts like cheesecakes, fruit salads, sorbet and ice cream. Infuse sugar with lavender and use that when baking scones, shortbread, biscuits and tarts.

Handy household hints

  • Mix lavender water with vinegar and use as a surface cleaner.
  • Dried sprigs of lavender in cupboards help to repel fish moths.
  • To perfume a room, put a bowl of fresh lavender sprigs on a windowsill in the sun.

Lavender shortbread

This shortbread recipe uses lavender sugar; it’s also really nice to have a jar of lavender sugar in the pantry, reserved for special occasions. Make sure the lavender is well dried before you add it to the sugar if you intend to keep it stored for any length of time.

For the lavender sugar

110g castor sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped lavender flowers and leaves

Mix the castor sugar with the finely chopped lavender flowers and leaves.

For the shortbread

350g plain white flour

110g lavender sugar

75g rice flour

Pinch of baking powder

275g butter

Pre-heat the oven to 140°C

  1. Sieve together the flour, lavender sugar, rice flour, a good pinch of salt and a good pinch of baking powder.
  2. Cut the butter into cubes and rub it in to the dry ingredients until the whole mixture comes together.
  3. Spread mixture evenly onto a baking tray and bake for about 1 to 11/2 hours in the oven.
  4. The shortbread should be a pale golden colour and fully cooked through.
  5. Cut into squares or fingers while still hot and sprinkle with some castor sugar. Leave to cool in the tin; hide away in an airtight container.

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