Whether grown in the garden or in pots, lavender is one of the UK's most popular evergreen shrubs, and at this time of year it's not hard to see why?
When in bloom, which can be from late May through to the end of August in the UK, lavender is both lovely to look at and extremely fragrant. It is a low-maintenance plant which is easy to grow and, once established, resistant to drought. It will attract bees and butterflies to your garden, but is resistant to rabbits and other 'nibblers'.
There are several varieties available and many will thrive in the UK, although they do prefer well-drained soil to flourish. And if you don't have a garden, lavender loves to grow in larger pots, tubs and window boxes, bringing a splash of colour and the lovely fresh scent of summer even if you live in a top floor flat.
Above all, lavender has a wide variety of uses. It is grown commercially mainly to produce lavender oil, which is used in products ranging from foods to perfumes and other cosmetics, and in complementary medicine, chiefly aromatherapy. Lavender is reputed to be highly relaxing, inhibiting anxiety and helping induce good quality sleep.
Dried lavender has also long been treasured for its clean, fresh scent, used in potpourris and lavender bags kept in wardrobes and drawers to impart the scent to clothing while also deterring moths. While many lavender-based products are commercially available, several can also be simply made by home craft enthusiasts, another reason why the plant remains so popular.
While the most common type of lavender – Lavandula angustifolia – is more often called English Lavender, it is not native to the UK. Instead it is thought the Romans first brought Lavender to Britain, growing it for its medicinal uses. By the Middle Ages it was commonplace in monastery gardens, where monks cultivated a range of medicinal herbs.
By the sixteenth century the nobility had caught on, with most of England's large country houses growing their own lavender for use in the kitchen and throughout the household. Several had their own stills to produce lavender water for toiletries and laundry, while lavender oil, often mixed with wax, was rubbed into wood, both to polish it and deter woodworm and other mites.
Lavender tea became very popular, with Queen Elizabeth I reportedly drinking several cups a day to ward off migraine, as well as eating lavender conserves. In London during the Great Plague, people desperate to avoid infection drank essence of lavender in alcohol. Whether it did any good was questionable, but if nothing else, lavender helped Britain's cities smell better, sold in bunches by street vendors.
Perhaps its best-known devotee was Queen Victoria, whose well-documented love of lavender also boosted its popularity among her subjects. It is said that Prince Albert courted her with sweet smelling nosegays of lavender and heather and she never lost her fondness for either. All the Royal households were infused with the fresh scent of lavender; it was used in oils for polishing the wood, in soaps for washing people and laundry alike, in potpourris and even for scenting the queen's bathwater.
Victoria's love of lavender saw an explosion in lavender products sold in chemist shops across the country, and not just for the ladies. Lavender-scented aftershave lotions and pomades for men's hair were all the rage.
Today lavender remains extremely popular, with many lavender farms across the UK also open to the public and selling their lavender-based products through tearooms, gift shops and websites. People are also being encouraged to plant lavender in their gardens or tubs to help revive and encourage the UK's dwindling population of honey bees. They just love the aromatic plant and, as a by-product, lavender honey is delicious!