I must admit I didn’t know this - shamefully I didn’t even realise Portugal had a national flower, let alone it being lavender. And when I looked into lavenders a bit more, I discovered there are currently 45 different species of lavender, it is part of the mint family, and there are over 450 varieties worldwide.
Although Provence in France is famous for its lavender fields, in Portugal, the Alentejo is where you will find farms growing fields of lavender, including the ‘Portuguese Giant’, a variety of Lavandula stoechas, which tend to give off the most pungent aroma and has the most vibrant colours. Apparently a trip to see the lavender farms is a must, with the fields a riot of colour, and coupled with the heady smell, this must be one of Portugal’s lesser-known secrets. This particular variety can grow up to 30” tall, has a mature spread of up to 24”, is drought resistant and loves full sun. For the gardeners reading this, it can be grown in a pot or directly into your garden, and prefers dry fast-draining soil, but will not survive for long in shady, damp or extremely cold conditions.
Lavender was well known in ancient Rome as a type of medicinal herb at the time, and the Romans, famous for enjoying their hot baths, would add lavender to the water to enjoy the pleasant, relaxing aroma. Apparently the scientific name for lavender, “lavandula,” comes from “lavare” - Latin for “to wash” - and ultimately in Portuguese translates to “lavar”.
The fragrance of lavender brings an unrivalled sense of relaxation. And I am going to briefly get technical here - it contains two important substances, the first is linalyl acetate, a substance that has a sedative effect, and the second is the element linalool, which is effective for disinfection, making lavender a perfect remedy for relaxation, acne and scalds! – and explains its long-lasting popularity as a medicinal herb and cosmetic product. What gives lavenders such a delightful aroma is the oil contained in their purple flowers and long, slender leaves. It is simply called “lavender oil,” and is often used as a natural aromatic in bathing products, cosmetics, and perfumes, and is well known as an essential oil in aromatherapy circles. Perhaps because they bring such a relaxing effect, one of the meanings of lavender in the language of flowers is “silence” or “faith”.
“What woman, however old, has not her bridal-favours and raiment stowed away, and packed in lavender, in the inmost cupboards of her heart?” A beautiful quote from William Makepeace Thackeray, and in reality a sachet of dried lavender will keep clothing fresh and sweet smelling, this being just one use for fragrant dried lavender. I remember receiving gifts of little sachets of lavender to be hung on coat hangers in the wardrobe, and paper sheets infused with the perfume of lavender for lining clothing drawers.
In my ignorance, I also didn’t know lavender was edible! Culinary Lavender has a sweet, floral flavour with citrus notes, and apparently is an incredibly versatile herb for cooking, being close to rosemary, sage and thyme, and is being used in today’s upmarket restaurants, with fresh edible flowers making a comeback as enhancements to both the flavour and appearance of food. Flowers and leaves can be used fresh, and both buds and stems can be used dried, with the potency of the lavender flowers increasing with drying.
I had just finished writing this article, when I remembered something to add that you might find amusing. Many years ago, I used to work in a pharmacy, and at Christmas the pharmacist had his shelves groaning under the weight of gift packs of soaps, talc, bath oil, and so on, and it was nearly all perfumed with lavender. When I questioned his wisdom of getting so much in the same ‘flavour’, he said he knew his client base well enough as there was an old folks’ home in the village with most of the residents being women who liked it, and sure enough the stock flew off the shelves in the weeks running up to Christmas. On reflection, I wondered if the staff knew the calming effects of lavender and were buying it for the residents, or were the residents buying it for each other in the hope of a quiet life!