Monday, October 25, 2010

Lavender Is More Than a Romantic herb

Harvesting lavender in Provence

Lavender belongs to and heads an elite list of universally popular herbs including the mints, thymes, sages, rosemary, and basils, all of which find extensive usage and acceptance worldwide,  have multiple virtues, and fascinating histories. No plant with the exception of the rose, a herb in its own right, evokes such universal affection or stirs memory more deeply than lavender. It has been a herb for all ages, and is showing promise of being one of the most important botanicals for the future with modern research now confirming many of its reputed medicinal virtues, aromatherapy harnessing its fragrance to gently ease work stressed bodies, and chefs around the world rediscovering a culinary herb of exceptional quality and breadth of usage that all but Provence had forgotten.

In the USA, lavender’s versatility as a medicinal herb has earned it the name of the Swiss army knife of herbal medicine due to its remarkable range of uses. In Provence it is considered the one essential in the first aid box. Only the true lavender Lavendula  angustifolia finds extensive use medicinally, and it appears to be at its most potent when the oil is distilled from flowers collected in the wild at higher altitudes in its native Provence. The next most potent form appears to be oil distilled from seed grown crops derived from genetically diverse material, and then clonal material, that is material grown from cuttings of a specific cultivar of the species. Certified organic crops attract a premium, and crops subjected to agricultural sprays are difficult or impossible to sell to any reputable firm. As lavender is one of the plants least prone to insect attack and disease, organic production is unusually easy to manage provided the crop is grown in a suitable site in terms of climate and soil, the fields are open, sunny and well drained, and simple rules of crop hygeine followed.

 Wild crafted herbs are universally preferred in herbal medicine, provided they are collected by experienced gatherers, as the tougher growing conditions  favour potency, the plants are less likely to be polluted, and they have been grown without the use of agricultural chemicals. The widely grown hybrid lavenders derived from crosses between the high altitude L. angustifolia syn. L. vera, L.officinalis and the lower altitude L. latifolia syn. L. spica, known in Australia as Intermedia cultivars and in France as lavandin, find  limited medicinal use.

The range of activity demonstrated by  lavender oil derivd from true lavender is remarkable. It is antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral in action and also useful on first degree burns.It is a powerful soporific as anyone who has ever tried to strip lavender in a poorly ventilated room soon discovers. At the height of early 20th century lavender farming in southern England, cross ventilation had to be ensured  before workers began to strip dried lavender flowers from the harvest or the ladies would be literally asleep on the job. Lavender also has a marked tranquillising effect. Next time World War III is about to break out among the children at home, open a bottle of lavender oil and hear the blessed sounds of peace return. This is a trick well known to French psychologists...and teachers! Lavender is also a very useful soothing agent for the peripheral nervous system. I found it to be very useful in reducing the pain of shingles for my mother who suffered from this very painful virus from time to time over thirty years. For those who find leg muscles aching and twitching in bed after a hard day’s physical work (restless legs syndrome), lavender oil rubbed into the muscles relieves the symptoms for many.

The essential oil distilled from lavender has until recent times been the only form of the plant to be used medicinally. But the water soluble compounds in lavender are found not in the oil fraction but in the water fraction of the distillate. The water fraction is known as a hydrosol and has been found to have its own range of biological activities. Its mildness has also attracted those developing gentle products for facial skin, and for children, and an interesting commercially developed use is as a spritzer to spray on the face during long haul flights. It refreshes, invigorates, and appears to reduce the impact of long distance travel on the body. The finest quality hydrosol comes over in the first approximately 30 % and the last third should be discarded.

In Provence lavender has long held a high reputation as an anti-toxin. Maurice Messegué, son of a famed herbalist and himself one of the greatest herbalists ever produced by France, wrote of  hunting with his father in the mountains of Provence when he was a child. His father’s small hunting dog was bitten by a poisonous adder and the young Maurice was immediately dispatched to gather wild lavender from the bushes on the hillside. The dog was already severely distressed by the time he quickly returned, but his father crushed the handful of lavender flowers and leaves between his hands and applied it to the bite. The dog soon appeared less distressed and by the following morning was well on the way to recovery. The bite of the adder is sufficient to kill small dogs.  Maurice Messegué said that the use of lavender against snake bite was common in Provence where hunting dogs were often were bitten. But I thought it might still be the case that the animals which recovered had  been bitten by snakes that had struck another prey recently and had less venom than normal in their fangs. So I asked Catherine Couttelenc (she has since reverted to her maiden name), a lavender expert and university graduate who comes from a traditional lavender farming background in Provence, whether she had ever heard of such a use. She was not familiar with it, but went on to tell her own remarkable story. 

Her aunt was fond of gathering wild mushrooms and was considered an expert at identification. Perhaps her vision was becoming long sighted with age, but among the mushrooms she gathered was a deadly poisonous form. She prepared her meal from them, ate it, and shared a little with her small dog. Within a minute the dog had succumbed to the toxin and was writhing and foaming on the floor, before dying. Without hesitating, and possibly with minutes or less to spare, she grabbed the bottle of essential lavender oil that was always kept in the medicine chest and swallowed around 4 mls. She developed no more than slight symptoms which wore off almost immediately. Lavender’s reputation as an anti-toxin appears to be anecdotal at the moment, unlike its other substantiated medicinal uses, but the reports are consistent and it may be that a molecular compound in lavender oil binds with active sites on various toxin molecules and renders them ineffective.

Lavender sachets made at Honeysuckle Cottage with freshly harvested and dried  lavender.

Lavender growers often express the fear that their precious natural essential lavender oil will be replaced by the much cheaper synthetic form of the oil. But true lavender oil is much more than the sum of its parts, and synthetic lavender oil does not have the healing qualities of the genuine oil. Nor is it of value to the top end of the perfumery market or the rapidly growing and widely accepted area of aromatherapy. High quality oils derived from organically grown crops are demanded by both sectors. In perfumery, the subtlety of quality perfumes cannot be achieved by using synthetic oils alone which are like a single frequency note, piercing and strident, and difficult to blend. Natural essential oils have a broader frequency band, to continue the metaphor, they are more complex and softer, easier to blend and to create a harmonious whole. Many natural essential oils are literally worth far more than their weight in gold, and substituting a few synthetic oils can keep the price of a quality fragrance within a tolerable price range. To create the necessary complexity, balance, and harmony, however, the fragrance is blended with essential oil of true lavender.

In addition to its use as a complexing and harmonising element in many upmarket fragrances, lavender perfume has enjoyed a resurgence in its own right. Many of the older formulae favoured a scent which was by modern standards ‘snuffy’, with a musky, musty bias. Modern formulations aim for a clean, clear, cool fragrance. The sweet clean fragrance of these new formulations is winning over a whole new generation, and together with the citrus family of scents, is popular with both sexes and all age groups. Modern formulations for personal toiletries usually incorporate the hybrid or Intermedia forms of lavender. An old-fashioned image fragrance has reinvented itself.

Harvesting lavender in the high country of Provence in early July

Aromatherapya is a true discipline in its own right. It is studied at post-graduate level in several medical schools in France, and a Chair of Phytotherapy has been established in the Université of Paris Nord. Aromatherapists demand the highest possible quality essential oil of true lavender, organically grown and preferably organically certified. Synthetic lavender oil is of no therapeutic value, and Intermedia oils are of limited value. It finds widespread use in therapies to reduce stress, relieve insomnia, and soothe the body. It is used as a wound healant in aromatherapy and, possibly because of its ability to relax the mind, it is considered to enhance the immune system and assist in overcoming adrenal exhaustion. Apart from pure essential  oil, tinctures, tisanes, spritzes, atomises, salves, and washes are all used, and hydrosols are gaining popularity with aromatherapists.

Eating lavender has a quaint ring about it, undoubtedly romantic, but seemingly improbable. In reality lavender was at least as popular and used in the same way as rosemary in England in previous centuries. Fashion is a powerful thing and lavender was relegated to the realm of the quaint as a culinary herb in the late 18th and 19th century in England. In the USA and certainly in France however, lavender never completely disappeared from the list of culinary herbs. Despite their obvious modernity, in many ways Americans have retained many old-fashioned ways. Their use of the gentlemanly ‘Sir’ as a form of address is an example. The pronunciation of the word ‘herb’ as ‘erb’ is another instance. This pronunciation was used in Elizabethan England at the time when English settlement first began in Virginia. The English language moved on in England. Dropping the 'h' in front of a word became regarded as distinctly lower class, and 'erb' became ‘herb’. But in the USA the use of 'erb' has been retained.

 Lavender was never forgotten as a culinary herb in the United States. A remarkable number of recipes in parts of the USA included lavender flowers, often in sweet pies, cakes, and biscuits. Lavender was never forgotten in Provence either. In the dried herb mixture known as ‘Herbes de Provence’, it finds traditional use in flavouring meat dishes, baked fish, soups, and in vinaigrettes for salads. The recipe for this herbal mixture is as variable as any traditional recipe can be, and many formulations have been published, but they usually contain various proportions of dried rosemary, sweet marjoram, thyme, savory, and lavender flowers. Lavender is also used extensively in Provençal baking (particularly breads), to flavour wild game in combination with honey, and to add an indefinable something to classic French sweet dishes such as Creme Brulée and  cherry filled Clafoutis. Lavender honey and the almonds of southern Provence are the basis of the enormously profitable nougat industry of Montelimar which draws tourists from far and wide.

The new wave of lavender herbal cookery world wide but particularly in France and the United States, is even more exciting than that of the past.  Fish, venison, and game are smoked with lavender, meats and seafoods are grilled over lavender stalks, lavender savoury butters are melted over steak and fish dishes, marinades for game, meat, and seafoods incorporate lavender,and Asian fusion foods blend the flavours of Vietnamese coriander ( rau ram ), Thai basil, mint, or with garum masala.
While lavender already qualifies as not only the most romantic of all herbs, and the most versatile, lavender is also one of the most mystical of all herbs. Around the Mediterranean region where lavender is endemic, various species of lavender have been attributed with magical properties. It was burned during the summer solstice fires to create a purifying smoke. In Tuscany it was used to protect children from the ‘evil eye’, and in North Africa it was used by women to protect themselves not only from evil, but from violence. It was also believed that lavender conferred the ability to see spirits and, if a handful was carried, to detect the Devil who would appear as a man with a hollow back. Spikenard, oil of spike, derived from Lavendula latifolia, was used in ancient Egypt to anoint sacred sites and purify tools of magic for cleansing rituals. Today, practitioners of mystical religions also use oil of lavender for purification rituals and healing.

Lavender is more than a romantic herb. Today it has reinvented itself to be the most modern of plants. In gardens, lavender is immensely popular around the world, and hundreds of new cultivars for landscaping uses have been released in the last decade. The use of lavender in landscaping is still increasing, and more cultivars are being released than ever before. Lavender as a culinary herb has never been more popular, and its usage is increasing rapidly across the fashionable world. The medicinal uses of lavender are now being confirmed by modern science. Lavender as a fragrance is becoming universally popular, its clean, fresh, cool ragrance perfect for modern lifestyles. Aromatherapy has verified the use of lavender in treating modern problems of stress and immune deficiencies. Lavender is in the forefront of modern herbs and likely to remain  so. It was romantic before, now it has a versatility that is truly astounding.

If you are a lavender lover, you might enjoy my book 'Lavender Sweet Lavender' (Kangaroo Press Sydney)  It was updated to a second edition in 2000 after a number of reprints.  Although it is out print currently you will find second hand copies come up for sale regularly on Happy gardening and reading about gardening.  Judyth  McLeod

© Judyth A. McLeod                                    

Friday, October 1, 2010

Vampires Prefer Red Roses

October 1st launched my latest book 'Vampires: a BITE-sized history'. It is 240 pages long, a small but thick hardback designed by my publishers Murdoch Books to resemble a19th century book, with a black linen cover embossed with a large, shining silver, blood dripping V, silver edged pages and a red satin ribbon marker. Their production values are wonderful. For those interested in the vampire world, this is a history of vampires around the world dating back to Sumerian beliefs and covers more than 5,000 years of vampire stories. The universality of these beliefs is quite amazing and the stories of vampires and their activities, particularly in the medieval period and through to the 19th century are deliciously spine chilling.

Here on our five acre piece of paradise in the Blue Mountains about 11/4 hours from Sydney, spring has arrived - rather fickle with mainly perfect sunny days mixed with rain or wind storms. This is the time when Mother Nature goes mad for all gardeners, but particularly for plant nurseries. Everywhere we turn there is so much work to be done. Our mild winters (usually about 17 degrees C during the day and never plunging quite to 0 degrees C)  means that tiny winter weeds really romp in early spring and look like they are on steroids. Potting-up of plants is never ending and masses of heirloom vegetables for sale are quickly emerging and growing in their pots. Our graceful Japanese Temple Lime is already in full leaf, our huge hawthorn tree Crataegus monogyna (I'm part Irish and part Welsh so many Celtic plants of magic and protection are planted here) is a mountain of scented white snow humming crazily with hundreds of honey bees, the viburnums are bursting into flower, jasmines and wistarias are draped over every willing - and some unwilling - trees, the hellebores are in full flower, the gardens filled with intensely sweet scented Parma and sweet violets, and the old bushes of Indica azaleas, almost all of them white-flowered, are releasing delicious ethereal wisps of fragrance. The camellias are coming toward the end of their winter flowering but some small flowered species and their hybrids are still in full flower and quite a few are fragrant Finishing work in the nursery at 6 pm a few nights ago I turned to walk down to the house past double-flowered cherries and crabapple coming into full flower and was brought to a stop by the intensity of fragrance engulfing me as the evening scented tobacco Nicotiana sylvestris with its large nodding clusters of long slender white trumpet flowers added its own exquisite high notes to the mix.

'Tuscan Lace' Clove Pink - a variety I bred from a cross between two 19th century varieties.

Soon it will be the turn of masses of wonderfully fragrant honeysuckles including the the last of the Winter Honeysuckle Lonicers fragrantissima, huge flowered Giant Burmese Honeysuckle Lonicera hildenbrandiana and pink flowered English honeysuckle (woodbine) L. periclymenum, dozens of different clove pinks (many of them ancient), fragrant old day lilies and irises, the heritage roses and old style varieties bred by David Austin, as well as hundreds of different herbs. It is certainly a time to drown in scents - and be grateful for a large rambling country garden.

Giant Burmese Honeysuckle