Lavender is a Mediterranean mint, grown on a large scale in the French province of Provence. It is a short shrub with multiple stems topped with “spikes” of purple flowers used in perfumery, herbal medicine, and cooking.
This minty herb was the original scent used in aromatherapy. In 1937 the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse burned his hand while working in a perfume laboratory. Knowing “lavandula” was used in medicine for treating burns and inflammation, he immersed his hand in a container of essence of lavender on his workbench. The burns healed quickly and completely, and the experience inspired Gattefosse to research the healing properties of other aromatic oils.
‘The essential oils of this soothing herb both stop the perception of pain and halt the inflammatory processes that cause pain. Regular exposure to lavender-based preparation, in aromatherapy or in cuisine, blunts chronic pain and improves inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, asthma, and chronic bronchitis.
If you find the scent of the herb intensely relaxing, there is good reason. Scientists at the University of Miami School of Medicine have found inhaling its essential oil alters brain wave patterns, shifting relaxing rhythms from the right brain to the left. British researchers have found that the herb specifically relieves feelings of anger and aggression and anxiety about the future.
Lavender encourages the secretion of bile from the gallbladder, making it easier to digest fats. People who have gallstones should avoid the herb, since it increases flow through the bile duct.
The herb is also mildly sedating. In laboratory studies with animals, the essential oils counter the anxiety-inducing effects of caffeine. This property makes the herb especially useful for people whose flatulence is worse under conditions of emotional duress or after drinking coffee.
The flavor of Lavandula leaves is too intense for cooking unless it added to a boiled dish. For a milder aroma, use the dried purple flowers. This herb adds flavor to bland dishes, such as white fish, potatoes, or shortbread, and balances the intense odors of mutton or game meats. Lavender also is a nice balance to the aromas of gorgonzola or Roquefort cheese. If fresh herb is not available, use dried lavender buds for cooking vegetables (but not for baking), not the buds preserved in oil.