Now that it’s fall, I can’t think of a better time to talk about a summer flower. I’m talking about lavender, and yes, the timing of this post may be a bit past prime. But, just like the smell of lavender endures, so does my interest in this awesome species!
Lavender was one of the first plants seeded here at Middle Mountain Farm over a decade ago. Helen, the owner, found herself with loads of lavender seed, and low and behold, those little seeds grew like a hot damn in the rocky, sandy soil. This success spawned Middle Mountain Mead when Helen was looking for ways to use the lavender. Fast forward to today, and the best selling mead is made with a heavenly combination of lavender and lemon. It’s called Magick Mead for a reason.
Until I did my research for this post I was pretty fuzzy on the various kinds of lavender. Now I get it. The following explains the four primary types of lavender, and how they can be distinguished.
English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
This is what many people are referring to when they think of the “true lavender” smell. The flowers can be various shades of purple, blue and white, and bloom for a relatively short period from late spring to midsummer. Since it contains a very low percentage (0-0.6%) of a chemical called Camphor, which has a harsh, pungent fragrance, English lavender is ideal for culinary purposes. You will see English lavender incorporated into oils, butter and sugar, then used in baked goods (lavender marshmallows, anyone?). You could also use it in jams and other preserves (how about lavender peach jam?), or in savoury dinner dishes (check out lavender and honey chicken!). English lavender is also an integral component in Herbes de Provence, a spice mixture I’ve come to love in frittatas (try this butternut chedder frittata with Herbes de Provence). English lavender was given this common name for it’s ability to thrive in England, but is actually native to the Mediterranean.
French Lavender (Lavandula dentata)
French lavender is similar in size to English lavender (1-3ft tall, up to 4ft wide), but the leaves are distinguished by square-shaped teeth along the edges (the species name “dentata” comes from the Latin word for “having teeth”). The flowers are purple or violet in colour, and will bloom for a much longer period than English lavender (under the right warm and sunny conditions it will bloom year-round). The fragrance of French lavender is pleasant, but is similar to rosemary or eucalyptus due to a higher percentage of Camphor. For this reason it can be used as a substitute for rosemary in cooking. French lavender is ideal for use in soaps, potpourris, and essential oil. This type of lavender actually originated in Spain, which often causes it to be incorrectly referred to as Spanish lavender.
Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas)
Spanish lavender is quite distinct when compared to other types of lavender. It is commonly dubbed “Rabbit Ears” due to it’s intriguing pine-cone-shaped flowers with dark-purple, “rabbit ear-like” bracts. The antiseptic, piney fragrance of Camphor in Spanish lavender makes it an exceptionally fragrant landscape plant, but not ideal for cooking. It is, however, a choice lavender for attracting pollinators. Spanish Lavender is said to be what the ancient Greeks and Romans grew and used to scent their bath water. The word lavender is derived from the Latin word “lavare”, meaning “to wash”.
Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia)
Lavandin is a cross between English (Lavandule angustifolia) and Spike (Lavandula latifolia) lavender. Lavandins tend to be quite tall, and have lighter coloured flowers on larger, longer stems. Due to a high percentage of Camphor in the oil (about 7%), lavandin oil is typically blended with English lavender oil for a satisfactory aroma. Farmers can make more money per field area of lavandin due to high oil yield and a profuse flowering habit. For this reason, the commercial demand for lavandin oil is high because it can be used in cheaper, high volume fragrances for items such as laundry detergents, soaps and shampoos.
To harvest lavender, simply cut at the base of the stalk. Household scissors work great, but if you have lots of lavender I recommend something a bit more ergonomic (like these specialized lavender sickles) to prevent blisters. Be sure to leave the woody portion and a few leaves at the bottom, to allow for future blooming. There should be no moisture, such as dew or rain, on the plant when harvesting, since this will encourage mold growth.
The timing of harvest depends on what you want to do with the lavender. For example, if you want fresh or dried bundles, then harvest when the first one or two flowers on the stem have opened. Or, if you are harvesting for essential oil, then the best time is when about half the flowers on the stem have withered. The oil accumulation and quality is typically at its peak during this time.
At Middle Mountain we use dried lavender, so the next step after harvesting is drying so as to preserve that amazing scent! This part is easy. Just wrap an elastic around the base of the bundle and hang it upside-down in a dark, well ventilated place. Paperclips that have been twisted apart make for great hooks, and allow you to shift the bundles around for adequate air flow. Since the greenhouse is smoking hot inside during the summer, we also laid some lavender out on top of a sheet for a few days and it worked just fine. Life hack: don’t leave them there too long or else birds will get in there and mess up your pretty bed of lavender, looking for seeds.
Finally, at the end of this process, you get to sit back and soak in the lovely aroma of lavender. This year, not only did the lavender get used in mead, lavender lemon syrup, sachets and bundles for sale in the tasting room, but I also got a little entrepreneurial and sold lavender-scented eye pillows as well. If you’ve ever been to yoga class you have probably used one of these little bags. They’re a slice of heaven during shavasana, or before bed, or when travelling. I also made lavender extract for use in baking, and I use it in a custom tea blend I dreamt up (mint, rosemary and lavender from the farm). Oh, and I totally botched my first ever attempt at making lavender and vanilla scented bath bombs. You can’t win them all.
So if you are gifted a lavender lemon loaf next time we see you, don’t be surprised. I am just trying to spread the lavender love.