Lavender has a lot going for it. It can take the heat of a Central California summer, it is a bee magnet, hummingbirds love it, it can be used in sachets, perfumes, and even cooking. Different varieties bloom at different times of the year, perfuming the air for varying lengths of time. While most are in the blue color family there are reddish lavenders and even Lavendula angustifolia Melissa which has pale pink blooms that quickly fade to white, as seen above.
While you might think the name lavender came as a result of its color, the opposite is actually the case. Lavender comes from the Latin word lavare, meaning to wash. Ancient Romans added lavender to their bath and laundry water. Through the ages clothes washed in rivers were spread on nearby lavender plants for drying, scenting them with their fragrance; eventually lavender plants were intentionally planted near laundry rooms for this purpose.
Lavender was used for something more serious during the outbreak of Plague in the 17 century when it was found to protect grave diggers and thieves from infection. Many people began wearing lavender tied to their wrists. It is now believed that the oil repelled fleas, the carriers of the Plague. Dog beds with lavender have been used in years past to rid dogs of fleas as well.
In addition to being a bath and laundry additive, ancient Romans used lavender for healing skin irritations like insect bites as well as more serious wounds suffered in battle. During the First World War lavender was again put to use as an antiseptic when medical supplies were difficult to obtain.
Lavender has been used effectively in aromatherapy as a treatment for calming anxiety, reducing sleep disorders, and reducing depression and has shown promise as a aid in treating dementia patients in many of these areas.
Last Saturday the Yolo County Master Gardeners were at Central Park Gardens with a presentation on lavender. Master Gardener Albert Crepeau described the types of lavender, a member of the mint family with its characteristic square stem, as being divided into three sections: Spica, Stoechas, and Pterostoechas. Of these, the English lavenders from the Spica section and related hybrids called Lavandins are the types used for producing the essential oils that are used cosmetically and medicinally. The Stoechas section, or Spanish lavenders, are used extensively in landscaping and grow very happily in Davis.
Master Gardener Henry Garcia-Alvarez then demonstrated the steam distillation of lavender hydrosol, a water based solution containing essential oils. Water and plant materials were placed in his copper still and the steam produced was cooled and collected, forming a water-based solution that could be used in skin care, aromatherapy, as a deodorizer and as a home care product.
Native to the Mediterranean region, the Canary Islands, and Madeira, lavender grows well in Davis’ comparable climate. They need well drained soil and require little or no fertilization. Mulching with inert materials like pea gravel is preferred over compost. Lavender grow quickly so experimenting with a variety of types is easily done by purchasing 4-inch pots. In this way you can extend the bloom season and keep those butterflies and bees happy. And maybe make a lavender wand. Hopefully, lavender wrist corsages will remain unnecessary.