Friday, April 18, 2014

Lavender Blues


Lavandula angustifolia - English lavender
"'I'm all right,' he said. 'Claire, I'm all right, now. But for God's sake, get rid of that stink!' 
It was only then that I consciously noticed the scent in the room - a light, spicy, floral smell, so common a perfume that I had thought nothing of it. Lavender. A scent for soaps and toilet waters. I had last smelled it in the dungeons of Wentworth Prison, where it anointed the linen or the person of Captain Jonathan Randall. 
The source of the scent was a small metal cup filled with herb-scented oil, suspended from a heavy, rose-bossed iron base and hung over a candle flame. 
Meant to soothe the mind, its effects were plainly not as intended. Jamie was breathing more easily, sitting up by himself and holding the cup of water the monk had given him. But his face was still white, and the corner of his mouth twitched uneasily." 
-- From OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 38
As Tom Robbins, another of my favorite authors, says in his novel,  JITTERBUG PERFUME, "with immediacy and intensity, smell activates the memory, allowing our minds to travel freely in time." Of all the senses, the sense of smell appears to evoke the most detailed and emotional memories. Scent is processed via the olfactory bulb, which is part of the limbic system, that part of the brain involved in emotional memories and the fight-or-flight response.

It is no wonder, then, that the smell of lavender, Black Jack Randall's signature scent, would have such a profound effect on Jamie Fraser. That "stink," as Jamie called it, overwhelmed him with disturbing memories of the violence, humiliation and revulsion he experienced in their encounter at Wentworth Prison.

This strong connection between scent and emotion explains why one person's poison is another person's pleasure. What makes the difference is the event the smell is associated with. For most of us, the scent of lavender is soothing because it reminds us of fresh laundry, being in the garden on a summer day or getting a massage. But for Jamie it was completely different.

Botanical Information

Family: Lamiaceae
Genus: Lavandula
Species: Lavandula angustifolia
Common name: English lavender
Other cultivars: there are many including: L. dentata, French lavender; and L. stoechas, Spanish lavender

Lavender, a member of the mint family, is native to the Mediterranean region, southern Europe, northern and eastern Africa, southeast Asia and parts of India.

L. stoechas, Spanish lavender

Medicinal Uses

Lavender is used in aromatherapy. It is valued for its ability to reduce anxiety and help people sleep. Lavender pillows or sachets are created for those purposes. A few drops of lavender oil is often added to the oil massage therapists use.

Lavender oil has also been used to treat skin conditions including burns and inflammation. However, lavender honey, made by bees feeding on lavender nectar, has been found more effective than the oil for treating uninfected wounds.

Some caution should be used as undiluted lavender oil can irritate the skin.

Lavender in Cooking

I am not that big a fan of edible flowers. However, I have been surprised by lavender. Lavender shortbread, for example, is very tasty. And one of my favorite desserts of all time was the rose water and lavender ice cream created by restauranteur Hussein Khazaal, founder of the Phoenecia at Alki in West Seattle. But alas, when he passed away a few years ago, he took the recipe with him.

Of course, if you want food connected with the Outlander universe, you have to consult Theresa Carle-Sanders' brilliant blog, Outlander Kitchen. Yesterday I read through her lengthy list of Outlander inspired recipes hoping to find something containing lavender. There I found this: Black Jack Randall's Fudge for Tobias Menzies. Sounds delicious, easy to make and it's gluten-free!

Cultivation

Lavender does best in situations that mimic its native conditions: full sun, well drained soil, low humidity, little or no fertilizer. To keep your plants looking their best, shear them after blooming. Don't be timid - cut them back about half way. This will keep them from getting too leggy.

After a few years, it is typical that the plants become woody and fall open. You can try pruning them hard and hoping that new buds will appear along the older branches. This takes a bit of patience because even if new growth appears, it will be a couple of seasons before the plants look very good. So when this happens, I recommend replacing them. The plants are not expensive and you will likely be happier with the result.

If you want flowers for cooking, sachets, etc., keep in mind that the oil content is highest just as the flowers begin to open, so that's when you should harvest them.

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