Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Herb of the Week - Lavender

This year I became more fascinated with lavender than ever before.  I have always loved the plant, grown it, babied it, and protected it through many a harsh Illinois winter, but this year I just plain started to love it.
So I chose Lavender as the Herb of the Week this week and will highlight other items on this wonderful herb this week as well.

“Lavender, if you are hunted, will protect you from evil forces. It will bless the house of the door it decorates.”  - Infinite Days by Rachel Maizel

Originating most probably in Persia, Egypt or Italy, Lavender loves a dry chalky ravine like those of the French Alps.  The two most common varieties around these days are English
Lavender Lavendula agustifolia officinalis and Lavendula intermedia ‘Provence’ which is a hybrid.  Both will tolerate hot dry summers and very cold snowy winters as long as the roots don’t stay wet for more than a few days.  I also find the raking wind we get in Illinois can dry the plant out in winter causing winter kill.  If you want to grow lavender for cooking I recommend the ‘Provence’ it has much lower camphor content to the taste.  ‘Grosso’ is a popular cooking lavender also because it has a higher oil content.

To Grow

Two elements are essential for growing lavender.  Lots of sun and good drainage.  That is often why the make a good hedge or edging plant because the soils drain best on the edges of a garden.  You can also plant them on hills or mounds to increase drainage.

Drip irrigation is preferred because lavender is prone to fungal disease.  They will bloom less when in competition with weeds, so be sure to keep the lavender bed well weeded.
Each year after the plant has bloomed cut back 1/3 to ½ of the plant, about 1 inch above when the woody stems start.  This pruning is more drastic than you do with most herbs unless you are harvesting them, but it is essential for the care of a lavender plant.

Lavender is a disease resistant plant and the deer, moles and voles tend not to seek it out.  However, rabbits will dig up the young plants and nibble to roots.  They are very attractive to bees and can be used to produce a lavender pollen honey if you have a bee hive nearby.

The Lavender plants you pick depend on your climate. English Lavender, (Lavandula angustifolia), is the most hardy plant and grown the most widely. It is easy to mix in a perennial bed. This plant will endure subzero winters, but dislikes humid heat. If you live in a humid climate look for a LavanDIN instead of lavender. "Grosso and Provence" are the best lavandins. You can even chose your hue of lavender, but unless you get shoots from a "mother" plant, you will not have a consistent color or flower.
Lavender prefers a sloping bed in a sunny spot. A solution to that would be to heap soil in a pile about 12 to 18 inches high before planting the lavender. If your soil is mostly clay soil, dig out your hole and mix the clay with sand. Lavender plants cannot compete with aggressive weeds, so ensure your chosen spot is weed free.

When planting lavender place the plants at least 2 feet apart. Start with 4-inch-pot sized plants. Leave plenty of room between plants for air circulation. If planting in pots, make sure to repot every spring into a larger container with fresh soil to allow the plant to continue to mature. A good, coarse, sterile potting soil with organic fertilizers work best.

To Use

Timing is everything when cutting lavender.  Plants are ready for harvesting when the bottom third of the flower stem (known as a spike) is blooming.  The magic window of time varies from garden to garden, depending on the rainfall, temperature variations, and ratio of sunny to cloudy days.  You will need to check the plant daily because the spikes will not all be ready to harvest on the same day.  I have only a half dozen plants and this small amount of plants makes selective harvesting possible.

Lavender will stay fresh in water once cut for about 3 days if you change the water and trim the stems daily.  This gives you a chance to decide how you want to use them.  Striped from the spike the flowers will dry quickly when spread on a screen or you can tie bundles of spikes together and hang them in a cool dark place.

The uses of lavender are a broad as its popularity.  Beyond aroma therapy, bathing and perfume it was used in mummification by ancient Egyptians; as a Biblical ointment used by Mary to anoint the feet of Jesus; and placed under the bed of newlyweds for passion in medieval times.  Historically it has been used as a treatment for common ailments such as flatulence, insomnia, bacterial and fungal infections; brewed as a tea for young women hoping to learn the identity of their true love; kept under pillows for sleep improvement and even rubbed on the skin as an insect repellent.

Lavender recipes are more common than one would think, with many people choosing to use the flowers for both sweet and savory dishes. Lavender tea is the more refined lavender recipe but is no less enjoyable.

Lavender is well known for its calming and stress-relieving properties. Drinking lavender tea is known to help reduce anxiety and lift the mood.  It can also calm an upset stomach as well as reduce the discomfort of trapped wind and/or flatulence in a more natural way.  Due to its well-known calming properties, lavender can be used to aid sleep.  When inhaled as opposed to being taken internally it can be an effective treatment for the relief of the symptoms of colds, coughs and other similar ailments.  Some advocates of lavender suggest that using it can help with depression and can alleviate or reduce the risk of migraines.  Lavender tea can also be used as a natural mouthwash for those who suffer from halitosis.



Delicious Lavender-Mint Tea Recipe

This delicious mint-lavender tea recipe is incredible! It’s the perfect drink for a warm or hot summer day. It’s cool, refreshing and rejuvenating. It’s also incredibly healing and loaded with antioxidants and nutrients from the mint and lavender!  I make a number of herbal teas with lavender in them for the relaxing and sleep inducing properties that lavender contains.

Backyard Patch Dreamtime Tea

1 Tbls. fresh lavender flowers
1 Tbls. fresh mint leaves
Honey (preferably local and raw)
Boiling Water

Add the lavender flowers and mint leaves to 3 to 4 cups of boiling water and let steep for 5-10 minutes. Add honey, stir and enjoy.  This tea is delicious iced.  Add a bunch of ice cubes immediately after it’s steeped and you’ve stirred in the honey. You can drink it immediately for best taste, or let it sit in the fridge for a few hours.

Lavender Aioli (A cooking sauce)
1 cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled and crushed
2 fresh sprigs lavender (leaves and flowers), bruised
3 eggs
1 Tbls. lemon juice

In a small saucepan, gently heat the oil with the garlic and lavender over low heat for about 15 minutes. Remove from heat just before it starts to bubble.  Allow to cool to room temperature.  With a sieve over a small bowl, strain the lavender oil, pressing with a spoon to extract soft solids from the garlic and lavender.  Discard herbs.  In a food processor or blender, process the eggs and lemon juice until well blended.  With the motor running, add the lavender oil a few drops at a time, then in a thin, steady stream until all the oil is absorbed and the mixture is thickened.  Season to taste with salt and black pepper.  Refrigerate for up to 2 days or use immediately.  Aioli thickens on chilling.

Lavender Laden Seasoning Mix
Many people know that Herbs de Provence is a robust seasoning blend that uses lavender, but this blend has a stronger lavender flavor than that.  

1 Tbls. Lavender buds
1 tsp. lemon thyme or garden thyme leaves
1 tsp. minced chives
1 tsp. parsley (Italian flat leaf if best)
1 tsp. mint leaves
Black pepper

Blend together and place in a sealed jar for storage use to marinade eggplant, chicken and pork by blending 2 Tbls. with a 1/3 cup of oil and 1 Tbls. vinegar.

Peppered Lavender Beef
2 tablespoons whole mixed color peppercorns (you can use all black)
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
Pinch of savory
3 to 4 pound tenderloin or rolled roast or even round steak.  Can use London Broil as well.
In a small spice or coffee grinder, coarsely grind the peppercorns, fennel seeds, thyme, and lavender flowers; rub mixture all over the meat. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight (preferably).  Once you have marinated, sear the meat then broil, roast or place in a crock pot until fully cooked.

I also shared a recipe for lavender hand cream back in in a blog post of July 2011. 

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