In ancient Egypt and Greece, lavender was used as a perfume and ingredient in incense. In the Middle Ages, it was considered an aphrodisiac. (It was also believed that a sprinkling of lavender on the head of a loved one would keep that person chaste—which seems to fly in the face of its purported aphrodisiac properties!) Touted as well as a cure for lice, toothaches and headaches, lavender was considered quite the all-purpose herb. It was even thought to tame lions and tigers.
Reading through lavender lore, one is less likely to find mention of its culinary use, although it's said that Queen Elizabeth I savoured lavender conserve and a lavender tisane (a herbal infusion sweetened with honey) made from plants grown at her palace. The classic herb mixture Herbes de Provence often includes lavender, as well as rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. It's doubtful, though, that many cookbooks before the 1980s mentioned lavender as a culinary herb. But it's now found in recipes for sweet dishes, infusing them with a citrusy bite, and in savoury dishes, offering a soft hint of flavour similar to rosemary or marjoram.
Growing your own
As with many flourishing romances, challenges abound in our love affair with cultivating lavender, especially in areas where winters are harsh and summers are humid.
"So many people tell me they can't grow lavender, when actually [it's because] they bought cultivars that aren't hardy [for their area]," says Carole Coleman, owner of Tansy Lane Herb Farm in Albert Mines, New Brunswick. (See Lavenders to grow)
Coleman suggests growing borderline-hardy types in protected areas or treating tender varieties as annuals and growing them in pots. "They'll reach a good size in one season," she says.
Here's how to help ensure your relationship with lavender grows smoothly.
- Choose a site with excellent drainage in full sun that offers protection from wind during winter.
- In borderline hardy areas, mulch with several centimetres of organic material, such as shredded leaves or compost, over winter. For added protection, erect a windbreak made of burlap attached to sturdy stakes around (but not touching) the plants.
- If your soil is dense clay, amend with plenty of coarse builder's sand (the kind with various-sized particles); plant in slightly raised beds.
- Besides having an aversion to "wet feet," lavender also dislikes high humidity, so space plants far enough apart to allow air to easily circulate. Although it's relatively drought-hardy, the herb requires adequate moisture to flower well, but don't overdo it; be sure to let the top few centimetres of soil dry out between waterings.
- Prune lightly in spring to keep plants tidy and remove winterkill. Remove no more than one-third of a plant at a time; don't cut stems back into woody growth. Plants can also be lightly sheared after flowering to keep them bushy.
- Most lavender seed is slow and difficult to germinate, with the exception of ‘Lady'. Rooted cuttings or purchased plants are your best option.
- Even if a few favourite lavender plants succumb after an exceptionally cold or wet winter, it's worth growing them to have that glorious fragrance waft over you on a warm summer day or watch bees and butterflies dance around the distinctive blue wands in the sun. After all, the course of true love never did run smooth.
Top photo: 'Grosso' Lavendin Hybrid