Since ancient times, people have been using lavender to soothe burns, freshen and protect clothes, and add distinct flavor to food.
In ancient Rome, the woman who did the laundry at public baths was known as a “lavenderess,” the word from which we derive laundress, said Betsey-Ann Golon, an herbalist from Naples who manages the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village herb garden, where they grow two varieties of English lavender. Golon is also a consultant for the herb garden at George and Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, and the “answer lady” for the D. Landreth Seed Co., the oldest seed company in the country.
The lavenderess used lavender and other herbs to wash clothing and protect it from moths and other insects.
“The reason this was important was it took hours and hours of work to create a piece of linen,” Golon said. “You do not want to put all that effort into it and then have moths get into it and eat it up.”
The soothing qualities of lavender have also been known for hundreds of years. When Martha Washington married George, she had already had children with her first husband (who died, leaving her a widow), Golon said. A daughter, Nellie, suffered from epileptic seizures, and lavender oils and sachets were used to control them.
“Now we’re verifying it scientifically, that it does have a soothing quality,” Golon said. “It’s why so many children’s products now have lavender in them.”
The French were the first to realize that lavender helps to prevent scarring and scabbing from burns, said Lorie Costigan, owner of Glendarragh Lavender Farm in Appleton. French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who has been called the father of aromatherapy, burned his hand during a laboratory experiment in 1910 and plunged his hand into a vat of lavender oil that happened to be nearby. Amazed by how quickly his burn healed, without significant scarring, he began studying the antiseptic properties of essential oils. The French used lavender oil on dressings through World War II before it fell out of favor, Costigan said.
Costigan was a skeptic herself until she blistered her hand one Thanksgiving on a roaster pan and tried the lavender oil treatment. Her hand healed without a scar.
Lavender is also known for its culinary uses. English lavender adds flavor to sweets, such as shortbreads and frostings.
On the savory side, lavender can be used interchangeably with rosemary. “We like to make roasted rosemary and lavender red potatoes,” Costigan said. “Rosemary and lavender are really closely related.”
It’s also often used in the French spice mixture, Herbes de Provence. Golon blends dried organic lavender with lemon-pepper seasoning. And she adds lavender sugar to her spaghetti sauce.
Be sure to use English lavender, not French, in the kitchen, Costigan advised, “and you can tell that by the color.”
“The English is going to hold its color,” she said. “And the French, regardless of its variety, regardless of how it appears in the field, it’s going to appear kind of gray blue, and that’s usually a dead giveaway that it’s French.”
Also, use culinary lavender that has been organically grown so you won’t be adding unwanted chemicals to your food.