Plant Profile: Lavender
Updated: Dec 25, 2019
For chronic over-achievers everywhere
This is a love letter to one of my plant friends. This mint-family plant has been used medicinally for centuries, and is a superstar in my herbal practice for addressing anxiety, headaches, inflammation, digestive discomforts, and even microbial infections. The word “lavender” comes from the Italian word lavare, “to wash”. Its use as an antimicrobial is persistent over centuries. In Europe, it has been used traditionally to “cleanse” public spaces, from bathhouses to churches. Lavendula is commonly cited as one of several herbs (along with rosemary, thyme, and other mint-family herbs) used in the 17th century as protection from the Bubonic Plague.
Found in the Lamiaceae (mint) family, there are a few different species of lavender that are used as medicine. There is Lavendaula x intermedia or “Lavandin”, L. stoechas or “Spanish lavender”, and Lavandula angustifolia or “English lavender”. Within each species, there are a variety of different sub-species that are cultivated for various attributes. Today I want to focus on Lavandula angustifolia, or “true lavender”.
When we are talking about lavender as herbal medicine, most of the time we’re referring to those fragrant, unopened flower buds. In botanical terms, we’re speaking about the calyx holding the purple flower before it fully opens. In warm climates and with enough space, it is possible to cultivate lavender yourself, and I’ve even had a lavender plant survive indoors during a Vermont winter, so know that they are hardy. Your lavender plant will thank you for plenty of water, high humidity, and moderate heat, and will attract pollinators and neighborhood admirers when flowering.
Many are familiar with its aromatic, floral smell, and that’s pretty much how it tastes as well. Lavender has bitter notes, too, and I like to think about it as a soothing digestive herb when there’s a need for something a bit more “stern” than peppermint or chamomile.
Energetically, lavender is considered a true nervous system amphoteric. That is, its effects change depending on the dose, menstruum, and method of preparation. In small doses of tincture or topical use of diluted essential oil, lavender is considered “warming” and stimulating. In large doses of tea or tincture, or an hour spent in a lavender-scented bath is more “cooling” and relaxing. In general, lavender is considered dry, dispersive, and clearing. Further, I think of lavender as having an energy of serenity and discernment. Do you have people in your life whose sock drawer looks like this? Lavender is kind of like that.
Clear, orderly, decisive.
My teacher at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, Larken Bunce, once said humorously that “Lavender is for Virgos”. For those unfamiliar with astrological shorthand, this is a reference to Virgo as a sign of fussiness, linearity, meticulousness, and perfection. Indeed, lavender seems perfect for supporting the nervous system when it looks like that heady, angry, fussy, “pointy” stress response common among perfectionists of any birthdate.
In that way, we can think about lavender as being about clarity. For showing us how rigidity and symmetry shows up in nature, but reminding us that sometimes it's okay to be messy and chaotic, too. Lavender can serve as a botanical example of how to have boundaries and containment at the same time as delicacy and warmth. Lavender grows strong and stable while still welcoming pollinators and exuding an inviting fragrance that attracts creatures of all species. For nervous system support for those chronic over-doers who need a gentle reminder to slow down, lavender is perfect.
In my clinical practice, I love lavender as a nervine and as an antispasmodic. It’s useful to support mood and relaxation in the midst of conditions such as anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, especially those that involve heart palpitations. It can be useful for not just in times of acute mood agitation but for those stuck in day-to-day feelings of monotony and self-restriction, so rigidly bound to obligation and a sense of “duty”. Lavender reminds us to let a few things go and see the forest beyond the individual trees. As a relaxant, it can be helpful for supporting sleep during acute insomnia; for easing tension in headaches and pre-menstrual stress; and for supporting mind and body during periods of hormonal shifts, as in those that come in adolescence, after birth, with menopause, and/or for folks beginning gender-affirming hormonal therapy.
But lavender’s magic extends beyond the head and mind, too. It is also an aromatic bitter, and, as such, a wonderful carminative to support a sluggish digestive system, especially when slow digestion is related to nervous tension or depression. For that purpose, I like to combine it in tincture with other bitters such as dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), orange peel (Citrus × sinensis), gentian root (Gentiana lutea) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita). It is also an astounding anti-microbial, and can provide symptom relief during colds and flus when used as part of a compress or (diluted) oil on the chest. I also love to use strong lavender tea as a gargle to support immune health in conditions like bronchitis and strep throat— it’s force as a powerful germ-killer and topical anodyne really shines.
Topically, lavender’s anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties are useful to support healing in skin conditions of a wide variety, including inflamed, itchy areas due to allergies or bug bites. Lavender essential oil can also be used topically on burns. My favorite way to prepare it for this purpose is to dilute a few drops of essential oil in aloe gel or to add a few drops to water in a spray bottle and apply that way. Not only does lavender help prevent infection, it can also help minimize scarring.
Topically, lavender can also be used to support the muscular system when there are strained or tense muscles, especially in the back, face, jaw, and neck. In addressing menstrual cramps, I like to use lavender and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) oil together, either as a diluted oil or in a compress. Adding additional infused oils, such as rose, chamomile, or yarrow, can also be lovely for this purpose.
I love to add lavender to my teas, and often combine it with peppermint, skullcap, and milky oats for an unwinding beverage before bed. I also love the smell of the essential oil, and add it to the bathwater, to my homemade cleaning spray (just vinegar and a few drops of dish soap), and slather it on sore muscles by diluting it in lotion or coconut oil. However, my favorite use for lavender is all by itself. I fill reusable cloth tea bags with the dry flower buds and carry one around in my bag to smell when I’m feeling wound up. I often make these sachets with a sprinkle of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, protector of dreams) and sleep with it under my pillow for some aromatherapy and energetic protection.
There are many more uses, both traditionally and in modern clinical practice, for this time-tested plant friend, too numerous to list them all. I hope that in highlighting a few of my favorites indications, you too can incorporate lavender into your healing practice.
For more information about herbal energetics and actions, check out these resources:
“The Energetics of Herbal Medicine” video interview with David Winston and Nick Polizzi
“The Energetics of Herbs” audio recording by David Winston
“Tissue States” podcast by the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism