Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lovely Lavender

Species name: Lavandula angustifolia (formerly L. occidentalis)

Common name: English Lavender

Location: Ontario

You might think this plant is native to England or the surrounding area, but you would of course be incorrect (don't you love it when that happens?!). This plant is actually native to the western Mediterranean near the Pyrenees mountains in Spain. It is an incredibly popular ornamental, medicinal and culinary plant which first gained popularity amongst the British, hence the common name. In fact, the British are the biggest users of lavender products in the world.

This species of plant is considered to be evergreen in most areas of the world, meaning that it doesn't lose its leaves during the winter. It is cold-tolerant and drought-tolerant, but quite sensitive to continuously wet soils. If you wanted to plant this in your garden, it would do best in high-lying areas to ensure well-draining soil. Due to the incredibly aromatic leaves and flowers, the plants suffer from very little herbivory, and the essential oil is so potent that it prevents most types of microbial growth on the plant. The chances of it being eliminated from a garden (or agricultural plantation) due to disease is quite slim. The flowers contain a large amount of nectar for their size and are great attractants of pollinators. In fact, the lavender essential oil remains intact after nectar processing by bees to make honey, so lavender honey is one of the few honeys that naturally have a flowery taste. There are a few other "specialty" honeys for sale out there, but many of them are artificially spiked with flavouring during the processing (by humans) from honeycomb to jar.

Aside from ornamental use, lavender flowers have been used in culinary applications for many centuries. The French use it in a special herb blend called "Herbes de Provence" which was made popular in the 1970s in North America. The British also use lavender flowers in tea and in making pastries and creams.

Medicinally, lavender oil is often mixed with some other sort of carrier oil (it is very difficult to obtain large amounts of lavender essential oil and it also has a very potent smell, so it must be diluted) and used in aromatherapy. During World War I, lavender oil was a popular anti-infection oil used to treat open wounds. It does have quite powerful antimicrobial properties, and is still sometimes used for that purpose today (in "herbal medicine").

A word of caution: lavender oil is a VERY powerful allergen. Some people are allergic to it in concentrations as little as 0.25%, and most people will show some sort of reaction at as little as 1% solution. For this reason, it is strongly suggested from all medical professionals that you refrain from using lavender oil in any form on children under the age of 2. The type of reaction it causes is photosensitivity, and applying it on sensitive skin can cause reactions as severe as second degree burns which can leave permanent scarring. ALWAYS read the label before you purchase lavender oil, and make sure that the concentration of oil is less than 1%. If you can't tell, don't buy it or don't use it on your skin. The leaves and flowers of lavender when used in traditional amounts in cooking are never enough to produce 0.25% of essential oil so not to worry if you enjoy using them in cooking (or eating lavender honey or lavender jelly). Just don't make a meal out of lavender leaves!

As another word of caution, there was evidence in 2007 that stated lavender oil (as well as tea tree oil) can cause gynaecomastia, or breast development in young boys, due to its estrogenic activity. This was refuted in 2008, but be cautious. Just yet another reason to avoid using lavender oil as any form of medical treatment on young children!