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True Lavender

( Originally Published 1933 )



LAVANDULA VERA, DC.

Labiatae Shrub

There seems to have been some confusion about naming these plants, and this lavender is also called L. officinalis, Chaix., L. angustifolia, Moench, and L. spica, L. All the lavenders are native to the Mediterranean region and grow wild in southern France, Spain, Italy, Corsica, and Sicily. The true lavender is distinguished from the spike lavender by having narrower leaves; by the character of the branches which are more numerous, compact, and erect and with only one spike and one pair of opposite leaves to each flowering stem. The whole plant has a woolly, grayish tinge, and when in flower the numerous, straight stems bent outwards by the weight of their spike-like inflorescence resemble a many sprayed silvery fountain. It is a beautiful plant and especially endearing be-cause of its fragrance.

Root. The roots are woody, fibrous, and matted.

Stem. My plants did not rise above thirty inches in height, but they are said to grow to four feet. The furry stems are square, deeply furrowed, and sharply ridged.

Leaf. The leaves are linear with a strongly marked central rib, and curve down a little, being concave on the under side. They are in whorls of two or three at the end of the stem, forming a spike of from five to seven whorls.

The leaves have, to me, a slight tang. They combine the scents of turpentine, spice, and camphor.

Flower. The flowers which come in July are a true lavender color, are labiate and shaded darker at the edge of the petals. The two upper petals stand back and the three lower ones form a lip. They are one-quarter of an inch across. At the base of the corolla is the calyx, one-eighth of an inch long, a roundish, lavender-greenish, furry cup which contains the fragrance, the corolla being scentless. The calyx is subtended by a green bract which does service for two or three flowers. Some think it smells of bergamot, rose, and eucalyptol, hot and harsh. To me it smells sweetly of heliotrope, sharp, refreshing, and stimulating.

Seed. The seed is brown, oblong, and with a well marked white spot at the end where it is attached to the calyx. Its germinating power, according to Vilmorin, lasts five years.

Variety. L. vera Munstead, dwarf, twelve inches tall.

Lavendula vera alba is listed in the catalogues, but when grown from seed had lavender flowers. It probably has to be increased from cuttings. This one is said to have been popular in olden days, and in Queen Henrietta Maria's garden at Wimbledon, according to Eleanour Rohde, there were "great and large borders of rosemary and white lavender." Lamotte places L. delphinensis under this variety. According to the French, who are interested in the lavenders because of the oil used in perfumery, the ones growing wild are natural crosses, and hence the many different varieties.

There is a charming annual lavender called L. abrotanoides, Lam., the seed of which came to me from Portugal as Lavandula dentata. It has much cut leaves and branches widely; is fragrant, but not of lavender. Lavandula lati f olia, Vill. or L. spica, spike lavender, is more spreading than the true lavender and less shrubby. It also has larger leaves. According to Vilmorin, the flower stems are less numerous, more vigorous, less erect, and bear more developed branches than the true lavender. The flowers are also smaller and the fragrance not so delicate. L. Stoechas is a tall shrub growing up to three feet high. The leaves are thin and small and many of them grow together on little stems, which in turn grow out from all along the main stem, more like the rosemary's leaves. The flower clusters are club-shaped. It is sometimes cultivated in gardens, but is less fragrant than either the spike or true lavender.

HISTORY AND LEGEND

The Romans perfumed their baths with lavender, and hence the name, for the Latin word lavare means "to wash." The spikenard of the Bible is lavender, the name being composed of Nardus, a town in Syria, and spike. In Chapter IV of Saint Mark, 3, 4, 5, when Christ was in the home of the leper, "There came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious and she brake the box and poured it on His head . . . and there were some that had indignation within themselves and said `Why was this waste of ointment made?' For it might have been sold for more than three hundred talents and given to the poor."

In Tuscany lavender is said to protect little children from the evil eye, and the Kabyle women of North Africa think it protects them from maltreatment by their husbands.

Josselyn mentioned it, and it was in Prince's catalogue and in Bartram's as Lavandula spica.

USES

Oil of aspic from lavender is used to dilute delicate colors for painting on porcelain and it also enters into the composition of varnishes.

Medicine. The "National Standard Dispensary" says it is practically never employed in medicine, but Merck says of true lavender that it is stimulant, tonic, and used internally and externally in hysteria, headaches, fainting, nervous palpitation, and giddiness. In olden days a decoction of the flowers was much used as a mouth gargle and for the above ailments. The oil cured old sprains and stiff joints and was put on wounds. The famous Palsy drops, which sound as if the heroines of Jane Austen, ever ready to faint and languish, might have taken them, were made of lavender flowers, the tops of rosemary and other ingredients.

Perfume. The deeper the color of the calyx the stronger the scent. In some dark flowers there is said to be a suggestion of jasmine. Lavandula vera produces the best oil. In France the oil is distilled from the wild plants, and in England, where the best of all lavender perfumes are obtained, the oil is extracted from cultivated plants. The oil, which improves with age, is distilled from the young tops and flowering spikes, and is used, blended in with other ingredients, in perfume, eau de cologne, lavender water, and soaps. Lavender flowers are dried and laid in with the linen to scent it, whence the expression, "laid up in lavender." It is said to keep the moths away from the clothes, and is an important ingredient in potpourris.

Food. The leaves are sometimes used in flavoring, and sweets are made of lavender flowers. In England, according to Eleanour Rohde, it was the custom to serve small desserts, fruits, or sweets on lavender.

CULTURE

The lavenders grow wild on dry, stony lands, and in cultivation seem to like a sunny situation in a light, chalky soil, overlaid with loam. Dr. Stockberger says low, moist land is fatal to them. At Peekskill it grows in the rocks and in dry, sunny places, and lives through the very severe winters with only a slight protection, which may not be necessary. If one desires to perpetuate certain bushes it is quite simple to increase them from slips put into sandy soil. It can also be grown from seed, started in-doors and transplanted later. For commercial purposes it is said the plants should be renewed every six or seven years, and that the best yields are in the third and fourth years. It has never been grown much commercially in the United States. One can buy plants of L. officinalis and its variety, the dwarf Munstead, also of L. spica from nurseries.

Harvest. The stems and flowering branches are cut in sunny weather in the afternoon, as close to the woody stock as possible. This is done when the whole spike is in flower and the lowest blossom has begun to darken. The yield of oil from sixty flowering spikes is one ounce. In England in Surrey, Hertfordshire, and Lincoln, where the best oil is produced, according to Sawyer, twenty-five pounds of oil can be expected from one acre of plants.



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