Dear Readers, when we were trying to buy a house in East Finchley almost a decade ago, I sat on the wall outside the house that is now ours. Were we far enough from the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner not to be affected by the rowdiness that sometimes accompanies such establishments? How bad was the noise from the main road? As I sat there, I breathed in the scent from the lavender that had been planted by the current owners, and watched the bees hopping from flower to flower. I realised how lucky I was to be even considering living here, and also that the house was meant to be ours. I am sure that the smell of lavender will always mean this house to me, and will be tied up with the memories of my time here.
Today, those lavender plants have become a veritable field. In truth they’ve become a bit woody and overgrown, but for a few weeks every year they attract every pollinator for miles around. I sat on my wall with the camera this afternoon, and listened to the drowsy hum of the honeybees going about their business, just as I did a decade ago, and it still soothes me. I think of them taking the lavender-scented nectar back to the hives on the allotment a few blocks away, and it makes me smile to think of how delicious it will be.
Every year we take the shears to the lavender once it’s finished flowering, and the next year it comes back with more flowers than ever. I know there are lots of other varieties, but this seems to be the one that is the most robust in the sun-baked Mediterranean climate of my south-facing front yard. Every time I brush past the flowers they release that heady, resinous scent.
Most of the bees that come to visit are busy honeybees or bumblebees, but every so often we get a butterfly. Normally these are large or small cabbage whites, but today I spotted my first small tortoiseshell. These butterflies had a bad year last year – I don’t think I saw a single specimen, so it was great to see this one. They look so unobtrusive with their wings closed, but then they open them, and you get a brief glimpse of tangerine and sky blue.
Lavender is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, and can be found right across Europe, south west Asia and northern and eastern Africa. It has been taken to many other countries as a culinary herb, and as a source of essential oils. It has been found ‘in the wild’ in the UK since at least 1440 – it was mentioned in a manuscript poem by a horticulturalist called Jon Gardener ( which may have been a pseudonym, a case of someone being named after their occupation, or a fine case of nominative determinism). The plant now finds itself in the top thirty list of alien plants found in London and Berkshire, but not in Sutherland, where presumably it is too cold and wet. I suspect that its range will increase northwards as climate change warms up the country.
There is some discussion about how lavender got its name. Some believe that it came from the Latin word lavare, to wash, perhaps referring to the use of the essential oil in soap and for scenting both people and clothing. Others think that it comes from the Latin word livere, meaning ‘blue-ish’. Both seem feasible to me, and the derivation could well be a combination of the two, equally applicable, words.In Hebrew, the plant is called nard, and is mentioned in the Song of Solomon. In Roman times, lavender was sold for 100 denarii a pound, about the same as a month’s wages for a farm labourer.
Today, lavender the plant has given its name to lavender the colour, one of my favourites.
Something that divides people is the use of lavender as a flavouring. I am very fond of floral overtones in food, and a lemon and lavender cake is my idea of heaven. However, it’s easy to be heavy-handed and to end up with a dessert that tastes like soap, just as the over-use of rosewater can result in something that reminds me of a lady’s boudoir. Should you wish to have a bash, however, here is a recipe for lavender and lemon loaf cake.
Interestingly, although popular culture has it that the people of Provence have been showering every dish with lavender since time immemorial, the ingredient was not included in books about Provencal cookery at the turn of the 20th century. Lambs were allowed to graze on lavender to flavour and tenderise their meat, but the inclusion of lavender in ‘Herbes de Provence’ was created in 1970 for the North American market. Thus are legends born.
The production of lavender oil for other purposes is big business: it’s used in everything from soap and shower-gel to fabric conditioner and cleaning products. There are two types of oil, one derived exclusively from the flowers and used in perfumery and aromatherapy, and lavender spike oil, derived from a different species of lavender, Lavandula latifolia, and used as a replacement for turpentine. The world’s biggest producer of lavender is not as you might expect Provence in France, but Bulgaria. There are also some lavender farms in southern England, including Mayfield Lavender in Surrey, a site that I stumbled upon during a walk a few years ago. What a feast for the senses it was!
As a medicinal ingredient, lavender is often used to enable sleep and to soothe anxiety (hence the use of lavender oil sachets and pillows filled with the flowers for those with insomnia). It was used in the First World War as an antiseptic for wounds and burns, and has long been used for tension headaches, and as a treatment for parasites. However, the oil is also an endocrine disrupter, and has been linked to breast development in young boys (prepubertal gynecomastia). It is also a strong ingredient which can irritate the skin if used at the wrong concentration. While I like the smell of the flowers, and the taste of the ingredient in food, I much prefer rose as a scent in my soap and lotions. I find lavender a little bit overwhelming.
On the other hand, Cleopatra was said to have seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony by wearing a perfume containing lavender, so if you are in the mood to subdue a dictator this might be just the plant. On St Luke’s Day (18th October), maidens would sip lavender tea and recite this poem:
“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me,
In my dreams, let me my true love see.”
Furthermore, lavender was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a concoction which was said to protect those who used it against the plague. The ‘Four Thieves’ bit comes after some burglars who were preying on the houses of those who had died of the disease were captured: they gave the recipe in exchange for clemency, saying that it had enabled them to go about their nefarious crimes without catching the plague themselves. There are many different recipes, but all include vinegar mixed with various herbs, such as sage, rosemary and lavender. As these plants have all been used to deter insect infestations, I wonder if bathing in the vinegar deterred the fleas that carried the plague? Often these stories have a tiny kernel of truth.
And here, for our poem of the week, is one by Paul Muldoon, an Irish poet who has won both the T.S Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. This is the title poem from his 1987 collection ‘Meeting the British’.
Meeting the British
We met the British in the dead of winter.
The sky was lavender
and the snow lavender-blue.
I could hear, far below,
the sound of two streams coming together
(both were frozen over)
and, no less strange,
myself calling out in French
across that forest-
clearing. Neither General Jeffrey Amherst
nor Colonel Henry Bouquet
could stomach our willow-tobacco.
As for the unusual
scent when the Colonel shook out his hand-
kerchief: C’est la lavande,
une fleur mauve comme le ciel.
They gave us six fishhooks
and two blankets embroidered with smallpox.