Sweet-smelling lavender is a member of the Labiatae family, also called mint. Within the genus Lavandula there are 39 species of lavender. Some species of lavender are annuals, with a herbaceous habit. The perennial lavenders are somewhat woody; some are small shrubs when they mature. The colors of the flowers range from blue, lavender, pink or purple to pure white.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region, south to northern Africa, and east to southeastern India. It has been cultivated for thousands of years and has been planted throughout the world. The many species of lavender cross-pollinate easily, and there are countless unidentified variations. Many varieties grow wild, innocuously spread by wind and animals.
Lavender oil has antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is also anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsive and an anti-depressant. The oil is usually taken as one to three drops on a sugar cube. If you take the oil internally you risk a side effect of nausea. Lavender flower tea is the best way to take a dose internally without the side effects.
Lavender essential oil is used in aromatherapy for stress relief. A drop of lavender oil on the temple is a folk remedy for headache, and lavender in the bath brings soothing relaxation. The oil is mild enough to be used directly on your skin; use it to massage sore muscles or for arthritis pain. Use it on cuts and abrasions, bee stings, skin rashes, cold sores, canker sores and blisters.
Lavender oil is used in perfume and for scenting candles, soaps and other products. The dried flower buds are found in potpourri and are used as moth repellent and in sachets and as confetti tossed at weddings.
Bees love the sweet flower nectar, and the resulting honey is found in gourmet shops.
Commercial lavender farms are well-known in England and France, where lavender is used in the perfume industry and produced for export. In France lavender is also an ingredient in gourmet cuisine.
A lavender cross species, Lavendin, is usually planted for commercial cultivation. It is a taller plant with larger flowers and is easier to machine harvest. Lavender oil is found only in the flowers, so the larger flowers produce more oil.
Common lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, used to be called L. officinalis. If you buy plants or seeds, you could see either name. It is the most commonly grown species of lavender in home gardens. The flowers of L. angustifolia are heavily scented, and the oil produced by this plant is the highest quality with strong, sweet scent. This variety is of medium height, and it will spread slowly and fill a bed. Grow it from seed, transplants or rooted cuttings.