The herb garden: Lavender, part one

There are so many herbs, with such a vast array of properties and uses, that it would be nigh on impossible to document them all. I’ve decided to begin by simply focusing on a few of my top favourites for a post from time to time. There is a great deal of information available about herbs and their uses, and I don’t wish to merely duplicate what already exists. I do hope, however, to encourage you to begin using herbs if you have not already, or to broaden your use of them, by arming you with some pertinent information about a few of those that I have found to be the most useful and rewarding.

Where to begin? I could not choose one herb as a favourite. However, for its all round usefulness, popularity and ease of availability, I decided to begin with Lavender. There’s so much to tell you about Lavender that I’ll split it over a few posts.

Lavender in gardenGrowing and harvesting Lavender

Lavender is easy to grow, and its massive range of benefits begins even in the garden. There are many types of Lavenders, but in general they prefer poorer, well-drained soils and sun, though they will tolerate some hours of shade. The poorer their soil, the better the fragrance. Light pruning after flowering will promote bushier growth and more flowers. The plants can live for several years and survive most temperatures and climates, though extreme cold or drought can kill them. They grow quite easily from cuttings and seed and will quite often seed themselves. Along with the lovely sight and smell of lavender in bloom, growing lavender in your garden will help to attract bees (and other nectar loving pollinators), and repel ants (to some extent – ants are resourceful.) Its bushy profusion also helps create a visual jumble that confuses visual hunters and so protects plants. The English Lavenders (augustifolias) are generally considered the best for aromatherapy and culinary uses, but there is a great variety of kinds of Lavender, each with their own charms.

All parts of the Lavender plant are fragrant, but it is the flowers that have the richest aroma, and these are what is harvested to make that invaluable substance, Lavender essential oil. To harvest Lavender, pick the long flower stalks (picking the full long stalk encourages more flowering and makes it easier to handle the flowers). You can harvest at any time of day, but morning is probably best, after the dew has dried. Try to avoid harvesting in the heat of the day. Obviously, only use Lavender that is free of any pesticide residues. If you have access to a lot of Lavender, you could attempt to distill your own oil (a kilogram of Lavender will yield just under a teaspoon of oil, a pretty high yield as essential oils go). You can see instructions on how to do this here. However, there are other ways to use Lavender, either fresh or dried, without having to distill the oil.

Lavender can be used fresh or dried in cooking (a google search will provide you with many ideas), but use it sparingly – it is a flavour that should be kept subtle and mysterious as it can otherwise become bitter and overpowering. I seldom cook with Lavender, but here is something edible I love as an occasional treat:

Lavender sugar

  • Combine two tablespoons of dried Lavender flowers (or four tablespoons of fresh) with a cup of caster sugar (or two cups for a subtler scent).
  • Store the mixture in a lidded container, in a warm place.
  • Shake the jar occasionally to distribute the Lavender and encourage the release of the oils.
  • After one or two weeks, sift the sugar to remove the flower heads, or leave them in if you prefer.
  • Store your scented sugar, now permeated with the fragrance of Lavender, in an airtight container.

This sugar makes a special treat sprinkled on cakes and desserts, or substituted for plain sugar in recipes. It goes well with shortbread, berries, plain sponges or any sweet recipe featuring lemon. Use it within about 6 months.

Next time I’ll tell you about some more really easy and rewarding spotless ways to start using the Lavender you’ve harvested – by making simple Lavender infusions to be used for skin, hair, home cleaning or even eating.

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