HISTORICAL HINTS: Lamiaceae family. Originally from the Mediterranean area (southern Europe, northern Africa and Atlantic islands), lavender is now grown in different regions of the world as a garden plant or for the extraction of essential oil. It grows on cliffs and slightly acidic arid and sunny soils. Before the rest of the world knew lavender perfumes and scents, the Romans already used it in bathtub water; its name, in fact, comes from the Latin word lavare (to bath). Those who spread its use throughout the whole Empire were precisely Romans, who already had identified its officinal and culinary properties. During the Middle Age, lavender was considered of great value and used to protect from pestilence together with other antiseptic plants. Lavender was grown in monasteries gardens and even Hildegard of Bingen wrote a treaty on this plant. Between XVI and XVII century this fragrance was largely used throughout all the European courts both to cover bodily odours and to repeal insects and parasites. French extensive cultivation destined to the market dates back precisely that time.
THE PLANT - The genus of Lavandula includes 25-30 species of plants belonging to the Lamiaceae family, among which there is, indeed, Lavender which is originally from the Mediterranean countries. Lavandula genus plants are common in rocky places of the Mediterranean Sea.
The common name 'lavender' has been received literally from the Latin gerund lavare (which needs to be washed) referring to the fact that this species was commonly used in past times (especially in the Middle Age) to wash the body. Lavender is a very rustic plant with good adapting properties to climatic and geographic situations and its beautiful bushes spontaneously grow in southern Italy where it can be found on arid and rocky soils.
The lavender is a perennial, evergreen small plant which can reach 1 m of height at maximum. Leaves are simple, toothed, narrow and with a characteristic green-greyish colour. Inflorescences, on long stems, are spikes, each of which contains a variable number of extremely perfumed flowers but with a different aroma according to the species.
Lavender fruit is an achene containing a single seed.
Lavandula officinalis or Vera
Lavandula officinalis or vera is certainly one of the most unusual and characteristic plants of our vegetation. Native to the Mediterranean countries, it is an erected plant reaching also 1 m of height.
Branches are quadrangular with regular grey-greenish leaves.
Flowers blossom in summertime on 10 cm long, blue-grey, very perfumed final inflorescences.
All the green parts of the plant are covered with thick hairs. Lavender is a good bearer of cold climate and its favourite lands are soils 50 to 1400 m on the level of the sea.
È la lavanda spigo (chiamata anche “lavanda maschio” o “grande lavanda”.
It is the spike lavender (also called 'male lavender' or 'giant lavender'). Its scientific name, Lavandula latifolia, means 'large leaved', in fact, it has large and velvet leaves. Its flowering stems are long and can present different flower spikes. Spike lavender prefers warm climate and dry calcareous soils; its ideal habitat is above 600 m on the level of the sea. In France, the spike lavender is no longer cultivated. Lavandula latifolia is bigger than other species, with green hairy leaves and light blue camphor smelling flowers.
It is not very common to find it spontaneously and its scent is less appreciated than other species.
There are different hybrid species, called ‘lavandin’ which are more commonly cultivated than other pure species since they have high yields in essential oils because of their higher vegetative development with bigger stems and inflorescences. Among them there are:
Lavandula hybrida: natural and sterile hybrid of spike lavender and officinalis very used for essential oil production. When mowers harvested wild lavender, they began to notice more developed plants which they called 'big lavender' or 'bastard lavender': it was lavandin, grown from the natural breeding between vera and spike lavender. This breeding is due to the pollinator insects including honeybees. Being a hybrid, lavandin is sterile and its reproduction is done by the scion method which started to be commonly used by the 1920s/'30s allowing a rapid growth of lavandin cultivation. There are a lot of lavandin cultivars; the most common are: Grosso, Abrial and Super.
Lavandula stoechas: it is the marine lavender, abundant on acidic soils and characterized by purple bracts that blossom on flowered spikes and resist also after flowers falling. Flowers are very perfumed and blooms from spring to summer. Leaves are regular, narrow and covered with thick hairs.
Lavandula angustifolia: it is originally from the Mediterranean countries and is particularly suitable to form short hedges to flank avenues. Its leaves, typical of the species, are just slightly narrower and deep green. Flowers blooms on blue very perfumed spikes, long to 6 cm which open up in summer. A lot of different varieties of this species exist with differently coloured flowers going from red, to white, to blue.
PROPERTIES - Lavender is know from very ancient times for its antiseptic, painkilling, bactericide, vasodilator, antineuralgic, slightly sedative properties. It is the most used etheric oil in perfume industry.
In aromatherapy it is used as antidepressive, calming, equilibrating of the nervous system and decongestant against cold and flu, beside it is believed to be effective to lower arterial pressure, to reduce digestive problems and it is mixed with other homeopathic substances to treat backache and earache. Few drops of essential oil in the bathtub water help relaxing.
For cosmetic use, if added to water for the last rinse when washing your hair, besides giving a good smell, lavender reduces hair greasiness. Lavender flowers, differently from other species, keep their aroma for a long time, even if dried; it is, in fact, common to put little cloth bags filled with lavender flower into drawers in order to perfume linen. The plant, very well known since past times, was used to prepare talisman and lucky-charm, related to magical and esoteric practices.