Scientific evaluation of lavender

Medical use of the popular herb

Following on from the previous article about the cognitive effects of sage and rosemary, it might be interesting to look at scientific evidence for the effects of lavender, as this is arguably Britain’s most popular and useful flowering herb.

scientific testing lavender herb

Lavender has a range of claimed effects, and here we discuss some of these one by one:

  • Lavender is anti-bacterial
  • Lavender is anti-fungal
  • Lavender is anti-parasitic
  • Lavender is relaxing

Other claims that we don’t have time to discuss here are its carminative (smooth muscle relaxing) effects; effectiveness for burns and insect bites; as an anti-viral and insect repellent.

Problems in assessing lavender

Most research into the effects of lavender have been carried out using lavender essential oil, which contains a mixture of many chemicals such as linalool and linalyl acetate. However, the chemical make-up of the oil can vary greatly. Not only might different species of the herb (for example Lavandula angustifolia compared with Lavandula x intermedia) contain different combinations of chemicals, but also the growing conditions may affect which chemicals predominate. The extraction method could also conceivably influence the balance of oil components. To summarise the overall view, Cavanagh and Wilkinson from Charles Sturt University Australia in their scientific review of the biological activity of lavender essential oil wrote,

“Although the data are still inconclusive and often controversial, there does seem to be both scientific and clinical data that support the traditional uses of lavender. However, methodological and oil identification problems have severely hampered the evaluation of the therapeutic significance of much of the research on Lavandula spp. These issues need to be resolved before we have a true picture of the biological activities of lavender essential oil.”[1]

Since writing those words in 2002, Cavanagh and Wilkinson have gone a long way towards elucidating the role of lavender in medicine.

properties lavender herb

Is lavender antifungal?

Yes, Cavanagh, Wilkinson and co-workers found that lavender essential oils could be used against various fungi. For example Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula x intermedia were effective against Trichophyton mentagrophytes (a fungus associated with skin conditions such as ringworm) and others including Aspergillus nidulans (a fungus commonly used in research). [2]

Lavender essential oil is clearly active against the fungi tested in vitro, but it might be naive to assume a blanket effect for all, and clinical trials have not been carried out.

Is lavender antiparasitic?

Yes again! In their paper on the subject in 2006, the same research team found that Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula x intermedia essential oils can completely eliminate Trichomonas vaginalis (the most common pathogenic protozoan infection of humans in industrialized countries) and Giardia duodenalis (an intestinal parasite) in vitro when the oil is used at a concentration of 1%. [3]

It should be noted that these trials were again carried out in vitro, and so although the parasites were killed by lavender oil on a petri dish, the suitability of taking lavender orally for this purpose is another question entirely.

Is lavender antibacterial?

Yes – the team in Australia evaluated various lavender essential oils against bacteria including Streptococcus pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, MRSA, Citrobacter freundii, Proteus vulgaris, Escherichia coli, VRE and Propionibacterium acnes. Pseudomonas aeruginosa was the only bacterium in the experiment not found to be susceptible to any lavender essential oil tested. The team tested varieties of Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula x intermedia as well as other less well known species.

As with the findings for use of lavender as an antifungal, results imply that topical application of lavender oil (for example on an infected wound) is most likely to be the way forward.[4][5] This is not breaking news – lavender was used during the First World War to treat soldiers in the military hospitals.

Relaxing properties of lavender

The relaxing nature of lavender has been well documented, including a trial reported in 2005 in which dental patients were exposed to the fragrance before receiving treatment[6]. Various trials have since been carried out, as discussed in this popular article on the BBC website about lavender.

Allied to lavender’s relaxing properties, clinical trials are currently under way which investigate the role of lavender in treating dementia and Alzheimers. Professor Elaine Perry reports in one such paper [7]:

“all treatments resulted in significant benefit, including (in most instances) reductions in agitation, sleeplessness, wandering and unsociable behaviour.”

Lavender – A good all-rounder

So if lavender is so useful, why does it not appear more often in mainstream medicine? There are various answers to this:

  • Lavender oil contains a chemical called linalool which may be associated with skin sensitisation[8].
  • Lack of clinical testing. This may be partially due to lack of funding. Much drug development is carried out by pharmaceutical companies wishing to patent a novel chemical which they can make a profit on. So developments in the use of lavender are only likely to happen in Government funded research in universities and hospitals.
  • There is a difference between an oil being active on the skin (for example as an antibiotic) and it being active internally. If swallowed, active ingredients may be broken down in the gut; they may fail to travel to where they are needed, or side effects may occur. Luckily with effects on the brain, such as relaxation, inhalation seems to be a feasible delivery method (see previous blog post which touched on the scientific basis for aromatherapy).

Although lavender oil obviously has many benefits, the Herb Society recommends that anyone experiencing medical symptoms or feeling ill should contact their doctor in the first instance. Consult a medical herbalist for guidance regarding medicating with lavender.

[5] Cavanagh, H. M. A. and Wilkinson, J. M. (2005),Lavender essential oil: A review, Healthcare Infection 01/2005; 10(1). DOI: 10.1071/HI05035

[7] Prof. Elaine Perry, Aromatherapy for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease,  J. Quality Res Dementia, Issue 3

[8] Prashar, A., Locke, I. C. and Evans, C. S. (2004), Cytotoxicity of lavender oil and its major components to human skin cells. Cell Proliferation, 37: 221–229. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2184.2004.00307.x

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Bowood House Garden Festival

Emphasis on Herbs at Bowood

Last weekend was Bowood House garden festival in Wiltshire. It is one of two garden festivals organised by Herb Society President Toby Buckland, the other one being Powderham in Devon. Bowood is a grade I listed Georgian country house with interiors by Robert Adam and gardens designed by Capability Brown. The large event boasted over a hundred stalls, and speakers including James Wong, Anne Swithinbank and Roy Lancaster.

bowood house

Plant stalls in front of Bowood House, Wiltshire

The Herb Society stand

peter depledge bowood toby barbara

L-R Volunteer Carrie Pakenham,  Chairman Barbara Depledge and President Toby Buckland. Photo courtesy Peter Depledge.

herb society stand bowood

The Herb Society stand

The Herb Society stall was very well attended, thanks to Toby’s cheerful and persistent promotion throughout the weekend! As well as membership information and herbal expertise, toiletries by Littlecote and our friends at Cooks Lane Herbs were available to buy, as well as Elizabethan potpourri and lavender bags from Daisy Gifts Ltd.

The stall was run by Barbara and Peter Depledge, who would like to thank volunteers Kathryn Flegg and her daughter Ellen, Janet Turner, Liz Tomlin and Carrie Pakenham for all their hard work over the weekend.

The Herb Society would like to welcome all the new members who joined at the show and received our new welcome pack. We look forward to meeting you again soon!

Herbs in the Speakers Marquee

Inside the speakers marquee, Toby gave a very interesting talk on herbs, kindly plugging Herb Society membership in the process. He followed Jim Buttress (BBC Big Allotment Challenge judge) onto the stage.

preparing for talk

L-R: Toby preparing for his talk; Jim Buttress signing autographs

toby promoting herb society

Toby kindly promoting the Herb Society before his talk

I learned many things in Toby’s talk – nuggets such as: fennel gives off a hormone deterring other plants; Stephenson’s Rocket was named after the herb; add sweet cicely when cooking rhubarb to reduce the amount of sugar needed; use hairy mint in your mojito; herbs flavour intensify when you reduce watering; grow sunflowers to break up clay soil, and finally – how not to confuse parsley with hemlock!

More Herb Stalls

herb stalls bowood

Clockwise from top left: Jeanette, Malcolm, Kirsty

I was pleased to meet Jeanette from Blackdown Hills Lavender who had a fabulous stand full of lavender bags and treats, and won a trophy for Best Hat in Show! It’s always a pleasure to catch up with Malcolm at Hooksgreen Herbs, who had a large stand full of very healthy looking herbs. It was lovely to meet Kirsty from Devonshire Lavenders and Herbs, who had an impressive range too, and had very much enjoyed exhibiting at Powderham a few weeks before.

herb growers

Elsewhere around the show

around bowood garden festival

Clockwise from top left: fab willow sculpture by Clare and Alec Turner at In Clover; plant a pot with the kids; me enjoying a glass of Buckland’s fizz; sweet Williams for sale; flower stand by Sara and Saffron of myflowerpatch.co.uk and bath-flowers.com; strawberries and clotted cream

herbs garden festival

Herbs dominate the stage at Bowood House garden festival

Thanks Toby for a great show!

Wanaka lavender farm

Visiting a lavender farm in New Zealand

It was great to be able to visit one of the most Southerly lavender farms in the World on my holidays!

wanaka lavender farm sign

Lavender growing conditions

Wanaka lavender farm is on South Island New Zealand, about an hour from Queenstown, in an alpine area known for its cold winters and hot dry summers (although it was raining the day we visited!). This area replicates lavender’s native environment in Europe, where it prefers to grow at altitude in mountainous areas surrounding the Mediterranean. The lavender also appreciates the free-draining poor soil in the Wanaka area.

lavender herbs growing at wanaka lavender

I enjoyed meeting Tim who was happy to let me photograph his gardens and shop. Lavender is in his blood – his parents have been running Kaikoura Lavender (towards the N.E. of the island) for the last twenty years.

rows of lavender

Tim has been working to expand Wanaka Lavender over the last couple of years, with the nursery and shop opening recently.

dried lavender bunches

Dried lavender bunches hanging in the coffee shop

Lavender products

The oil is distilled an hour down the road, with a choice of Grosso which is commonly used in fragrance, or Angustifolia Pacific Blue for aromatherapy. They had a shop full of lovely products made with the oil, such as soaps, gels and lotions.

lavender essential oil aromatherapy

Herbs in the garden

I visited on the 6th March and had missed their harvest by about three weeks, but there was still plenty of colour in the garden. The garden benefited from some imaginative planting including native plants and grasses.

herbs at wanaka lavender farm

Standard rose surrounded by a wheel of thymes with mountain and low cloud behind.

thyme herb wanaka lavender

Thyme flowering in the herb garden

lavender and grasses

Grasses thriving in amongst the lavenders

It was good to meet you Tim!

If you would like to visit a lavender farm in the UK, there is a surprising amount of choice these days! I visited Isle of Wight Lavender last summer, who hold a national collection.

Are Hobbits Herbalists?

Hobbiton is a wonderful place to visit

I haven’t read Tolkein’s The Hobbit for a few years, but greatly enjoyed the films, so couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the Hobbiton film set when I was in New Zealand a few weeks ago.

Herbs everywhere

Ruth at Hobbiton

Ruth at Hobbiton

The film set was built to last as a tourist attraction after the filming had finished and each home was completely believable with its own back-story…

Most hobbits are clearly gardeners. There are 44 hobbit homes in Hobbiton, and nearly every one had a beautiful front garden.

Hobbiton is a well-defined society with each home having its own character – there is even a cluster of alms houses and a communal veg plot. Fruit trees grow everywhere.

 

Gardening hobbits

herb dryer

A pretty Hobbiton house with herb dryer hanging by the front door

vegetable gardening Hobbiton

The communal veg plot at Hobbiton clearly utilises companion planting

lavender nasturtiums herbs

Herbs growing in the veg plot – lavender and nasturtiums

lemon verbena herb

Another herb in the vegetable plot – lemon verbena

salvia herb

This Hobbit likes salvias

echinacea herb grown by hobbits

I saw quite a few front doors with an echinacea plant nearby – Hobbits see the importance of boosting their immune systems!

herbal tinctures

Was this Hobbit responsible for herbal tinctures and decoctions?

beneficial pollinators

Beekeeping not only provides a source of food, but also beneficial pollinators

decorated gourds

Hobbits have time for natural crafts such as decorating gourds

bag end front door

Bag End is the most important house in Hobbiton and has a beautiful front garden with echinacea

hobbits grow fruit

Fruit growing in front of Sam’s front door

sams herbs

Sam has left his waistcoat outside. He has a bunch of herbs drying by his door.

greenery at hobbiton

I commented to my travelling companion that I would prefer a water-front apartment if I were a Hobbit!

 A great afternoon out for herbalists and non-herbalists alike!

Flowering herbs in my garden | Summer

Memories of Summer herbs

Now we are into November, and Autumn is truly upon us, I’m enjoying looking back at a Summer of flowers in my Sussex garden.

borders with herbs in my back garden

My back garden – bronze fennel, roses and geraniums, golden hop and self-seeded cerinthe.

The term ‘herb’ is pleasingly general

I look around my garden and see many plants which have been of use to previous generations. It’s lovely to find that plants I have grown for their decorative nature can also be put to good use in times of need. Saponaria used as a herbal detergent in my previous post is a good example.

Self-seeded herbs

borage herb hammock

Self-seeded borage herbs flowering in the veg plot of my summer garden. I often use it as a cucumbery addition to Pimms and fruit punch – I hear you can freeze it into ice cubes too – perfect for a G&T !

self seeded herbs

Marjoram self-seeded in the cracks on my patio – I hang the flowers in small bunches to dry for potpourri making. The borage in my veg patch produced a second generation this year and was joined by self-seeded evening primrose and geraniums.

Making herb tea

herbs growing in my garden mint

I grow mint in pots in my garden to stop it spreading. I make tea from the fresh leaves. When it starts flowering I cut it back to encourage new leafy growth. I do the same with my lemon balm although the flowers aren’t so eyecatching.

lavender herbs in pots

Mint is not the only herb I like to grow in pots. I grow three plants of lavender for tea in zinc florist buckets with holes drilled in the bottom. Of course lavender flowers can be dried and stored for use year round. If I remember rightly this variety is Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’.

My favourite roses and geraniums

I love making potpourri from flowers in my garden. Rose petals add fragrance and colour in shades of pink, while hardy geraniums are not particularly fragrant but do dry to pleasing shades of blue and purple. I used my favourite Rosa Mundi petals amongst others in my potpourri recipes for Herbs magazine September issue*.

roses geraniums

Clockwise from top left: Rosa mutabilis varies in shade between dark and light pink; Geranium palmatum is bigger with more decorative leaves than most species; Rosa mundi has a long history in this country, prettily striped flowers and a great fragrance; a bee visiting geranium x magnificum.

See what herbs were flowering in my garden in Spring

*Herbs is the journal of the Herb Society and is published quarterly. Download our membership leaflet top right of this page to find out about joining.

 

Isle of Wight Lavender – a national collection

A herb grower on the Isle of Wight

Fragrant herbs growing in a lavender garden

I was on the Isle of Wight in August for a mini-break with my husband, so thought I’d pop in and have a look at the national collection of lavenders. It was lovely to meet Reuben, whose family has been on the island for hundreds of years, and running the farm since 1927. The farm diversified when Reuben’s mother became interested in growing dried flowers. They started growing lavender and looked into extracting the oil, which is now used in a range of toiletries and cosmetics sold in their shop.isle of wight lavender

lavender gardenReuben grows well over 100 varieties of lavender for the national collection, which is monitored by Plant Heritage. He was telling us how he had suffered with the weather over the last year, even on his sloping site where the well-drained soil resembles the natural environment of lavenders, which originate in mountainous regions around the Meditteranean. His lavender garden was beautiful, with many Lavandula x Intermedia and Lavandula Stoechas varieties still in flower late into the season. These herbs were attracting the bees by the dozen!

bee white lavender

lavender national collectionWhen we arrived the garden was in the process of being improved by the addition of arches, scented roses and visitor-proof labelling. It is very important for varieties in a national collection to be clearly labelled, so it can act as a reference for future growers, but try telling this to garden visitors such as toddlers and over-enthusiastic shoppers!

green lavender flowers

isle of wight lavender garden

Isle of Wight Lavender is open free of charge, and has a shop and tea-room.