The lavenders (Lavandula) are a genus of 39 species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and to the southeast regions of India. The genus includes annuals, herbaceous plants, subshrubs, and small shrubs. The native range extends across the Canary Islands, North and East Africa, Southern Europe and the
Mediterranean, Arabia and India.
Because the cultivated forms are planted in gardens worldwide, they are
occasionally found growing wild as garden escapees, well beyond their natural
range. However, since lavender cross-pollinates easily, there are countless
variations within the species. The color of the flowers of some forms has come
to be called lavender.
The most common "true" species in cultivation is the common lavender Lavandula angustifolia (formerly L. officinalis). A wide range of cultivars can be found. Other commonly grown ornamental species are L. stoechas, L. dentata, and L. multifida. Lavandula x intermedia or "Lavendin" is the most cultivated species for commercial use, since its flowers are bigger and the plants are easier to harvest, but Lavendin oil is regarded to be of a lower quality.
Lavenders are widely grown in gardens. Flower spikes are used for dried flower arrangements. The fragrant, pale purple flowers and flower buds are used in potpourris. Dried and sealed in pouches, they are placed among stored items of clothing to give a fresh fragrance and to deter moths.
Flowers also yield abundant nectar from which bees make a high-quality honey. Monofloral honey is produced primarily around the Mediterranean, and is marketed worldwide as a premium product. Flowers can be candied and are sometimes used as cake decorations. Lavender flavors baked goods and desserts (it pairs especially well with chocolate), as well as used to make "lavender sugar". Lavender flowers are occasionally blended with black, green, or herbal tea, adding a fresh, relaxing scent and flavour.
Though it has many other traditional uses in southern France, lavender is not used in traditional southern French cooking. In the 1970s, an herb blend called herbes de Provence and usually including lavender was invented by spice wholesalers, and lavender has more recently become popular in cookery.
Lavender lends a floral and slightly sweet flavor to most dishes, and is sometimes paired with sheep's-milk and goat's-milk cheeses. For most cooking applications the dried buds (also referred to as flowers) are used, though some chefs experiment with the leaves as well. Only the buds contain the essential oil of lavender, which is where the scent and flavour of lavender are best derived.
The French are also known for their lavender syrup, most commonly made from an extract of lavender. In the United States, both French lavender syrup and dried lavender buds make lavender scones and marshmallows.
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) yields an essential oil with sweet overtones, and can be used in balms, salves, perfumes, cosmetics, and topical applications. Lavandin, Lavandula x intermedia (also known as Dutch lavender), yields a similar essential oil, but with higher levels of terpenes including camphor, which add a sharper overtone to the fragrance. Mexican lavender, Lavandula stoechas is not used medicinally, but mainly for landscaping.
Essential oil of lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It was used in hospitals during WWI to disinfect floors and walls. These extracts are also used as fragrances for bath products.
According to folk wisdom, lavender has many uses. Infusions of lavender soothe and heal insect bites. Bunches of lavender repel insects. If applied to the temples, lavender oil soothes headaches. In pillows, lavender seeds and flowers aid sleep and relaxation. An infusion of three flowerheads added to a cup of boiling water soothes and relaxes at bedtime. Lavender oil (or extract of Lavender) heals acne when used diluted 1:10 with water, rosewater, or witch hazel; it also treats skin burns and inflammatory conditions.
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