The Herb Garden
The Joy of Growing and Using Herbs
by Rachel McLeod
there any herb more popular than lavender? Its clean fragrance has been with us
from earliest times. The Romans used it in their baths and the name lavender
comes from lavare meaning to wash. So in the days when soap was a luxury,
and for the rich only, other people washed in water made fragrant by the
addition of lavender which grew in every cottage garden.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, lavender was used
extensively not only for its scent but in cooking. As Gerard in his herbal
advises “the young and tender sproutings are kept in pickle and reserved to be
eaten with meat”. Queen Elizabeth I liked lavender with her meat and her
favorite was a lavender conserve. She also drank lavender tea as a cure for her
Using lavender for cooking could well be done by anyone with a mature
lavender bush. The flowers can be put in sugar and sealed tightly for a couple
of weeks then the sugar can be substituted for ordinary sugar for a cake, buns
or custards. And of course the desserts can be decorated with crystallized
Lavender is not only for sweet dishes. It is also a savory herb. I always add
lavender when I am making Herbs Of Provence, the wonderful French spicy mixture
of rosemary, savory and thyme often with lavender and basil added. Lavender has
a particular affinity for lamb; in fact, in France lambs were grazed on lavender
whenever possible. This may not be possible in Canada but adding lavender stems
to the barbeque and sprinkling the flowers on to the roast will help to impart
the flavour to the meat.
Be careful when cooking with lavender only to use a few flowers, as too many
will make the food bitter. Always wash them first and do not use if there is any
danger of them having been sprayed with insecticide.
There are different species of lavender. The one we know best are various
varieties of Lavendula angustifolia. A seed catalogue will list them but
Hidcote purple and Dwarf Munstead are two small, attractive ones that I like;
some of the others grow rather tall and wide – maybe a metre in both
directions. The French lavender – L.stoechas and L. dentata – are
both very attractive and sweetly scented but are not hardy here so would have to
be grown as a house plant in winter.
If it is given the right conditions lavender is easy to grow. It is most
important to plant it where it is well drained. It will winterkill for certain
if it has damp feet. Also it prefers a slightly alkaline soil. Wherever it is in
the garden its scent and purple spikes will be attractive. I have a small hedge
of lavender leading to the front door and in addition there are clumps scattered
in areas throughout the garden. Although it prefers full sun it will take some
hours of shade.
Pruning lavender is always a subject of discussion. When it is young, the
lavender will not need more than a gentle trim in spring to tidy it up and
remove dead stems. As the bush grows bigger and older it needs more drastic
cutting so that it will form new growth which will over-winter much better than
very old wood. My hedge is about eight years old and I keep the back of it well
clipped so that it does not invade other plants in the bed. I also remove any
old, woody and straggly stems. Both of these operations promote new growth and
take place in the spring and again after flowering. The smaller lavenders such
as Hidcote and Munstead need less pruning. Although lavenders can live for many
years, a very cold winter without snow cover could kill an old plant so it is a
good idea to propagate some young ones to substitute if necessary.
This can be done either by collecting seed (if you are fortunate, the plant
may self-seed) or by taking cuttings, which root quite easily, or by burying a
plant in sandy soil and leaving for some months when the stems will have grown
roots and can be severed to make new plants. This is just a rather exaggerated
way of layering and of getting a lot of young new plants without much trouble.
As an herb, lavender has many uses. The flowers scent our closets and keep
moths away from our clothes but also they have medicinal uses. Queen Elizabeth I
was quite right to use lavender tea for her migraine. It is a nerve tonic and
lavender tea will help with any headaches, faintness and sunstroke. The spikes
of lavender should be collected just as the florets are opening and hung to dry.
When the spike is completely dry the flowers can be rubbed off and stored for
use. The leaves can be dried too but they are not as fragrant.
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.