By Dr. Mercola
Cultivated and prized worldwide, lavender is a slow-growing perennial that tops out around 3 feet, characterized by short, slightly crooked stems. It’s narrow bluish-greenish leaves are offset by brightly colored barrel-shaped flowers. Valued as a pollinator, as well as for its hardiness and drought resistance, lavender is commonly found in flowers beds, gardens, highway medians and public parks.
The distinctive sweet, floral scent of its flowers is at the heart of lavender’s many uses, including its value as an essential oil, as well as its usefulness in home décor, personal-care products, perfumes and sachets. While you can buy fresh or dried lavender, or find it infused in countless products, you might consider growing your own. Growing lavender is relatively easy to do and you’ll be glad you did.
The History of Lavender
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) — also known as common, English or true lavender — is a flowering perennial plant belonging to the mint family. Since its advent in the Mediterranean region more than 2,500 years ago, lavender has enjoyed a rich history1,2,3 and remained continuously popular.
Over the years, lavender, which is now known to have 39 species, has been consistently valued for medicinal and personal use. Prized for its flowers, in either fresh or dried form, lavender is also valued as an essential oil. The name lavender hails from the Latin “lavare” — to wash — most likely due to its use for bathing and wound cleansing.
Earlier civilizations, such as the Egyptians, used lavender for mummification and to make perfumes. The Greeks and Romans added lavender to their bathwater to help purify and wash their skin. Today, lavender is cultivated all over the world for landscaping and personal care products, as well as the large-scale production of lavender essential oil.
Health Benefits of Lavender Oil
In case you are not sure if growing lavender is worth your time, you may want to consider some of the health benefits associated with it. For starters, lavender essential oil has long been regarded for its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antidepressant, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties. It also delivers analgesic, detoxifying, hypotensive and sedative effects.
Due to its many beneficial effects, lavender oil is one of the most well-known and commonly used essential oils in aromatherapy. According to the Natural Medicine Journal, “The efficacy of aromatherapy of lavender is thought to be due to the psychological effects of the fragrance combined with physiological effects of volatile oils in the limbic system.”4 In terms of specific health benefits, lavender essential oil:5,6
Lavender is thought to improve your digestion by stimulating the production of bile and gastric juices. As such, it may help alleviate conditions like diarrhea, flatulence, indigestion and stomach pain.
Lavender is widely known as a nondrug alternative to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. For calmer, more restful sleep, apply a few drops of lavender oil to your wrists or the bottom of your feet, or, as spritz for your bedding as demonstrated in the video above.
Lavender is easily recognizable by its calming scent, which soothes frayed nerves and relieves anxiety. As such, lavender has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of depression, emotional stress, headaches, migraines and nervous tension.
Applying lavender essential oil to your muscles on your own, or as part of regular massage treatments, helps to relieve muscle and joint pain, stiffness and soreness.
Soothes respiratory disorders
When diffused into the air, lavender essential oil can help treat respiratory illnesses such as asthma, colds, coughs and the flu. For additional relief, you may apply lavender oil to your chest, neck or back using a carrier oil such as coconut oil or olive oil.
Treats skin conditions
Given its strong antifungal properties,7 lavender essential oil is commonly used to treat inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, among others. Because it supports the formation of scar tissue, you can also use lavender oil to speed the healing of burns (including sunburn), cuts and wounds.
The Best Growing Situation for Lavender
If you are looking for a colorful plant that is relatively easy to grow, consider growing lavender. That said, you must first determine if you are able to offer suitable growing conditions for lavender based on its unique needs. Due to its Mediterranean temperament, lavender will not do well in cold or humid weather. As such, when considering adding this plant to your garden or yard, it’s important to remember that lavender:8
- Germinates poorly: When starting seeds indoors, it’s a good idea to place three or four seeds in each planting cell to ensure proper germination. You can always thin the plants later as needed.
- Hates standing water: Maintaining your lavender plants in pots indoors or on a covered porch gives you more control over the amount of water they receive. If excessive rainfall is a problem for your outdoor lavender plants, consider assisting with drainage by adding a layer of gravel about a half-foot below the plant’s root ball.
- Needs space: A good rule of thumb is to plant lavender as far apart as the plant is expected to grow tall. In humid climates, your plants will need extra room for air to circulate.
- Prefers lean soil: Lavender does best in soil containing very little plant food. As such, an alkaline, lean soil will make for happier, healthier lavender plants.
- Thrives in heat: Maintaining your lavender plants in a location receiving six or more hours of sunlight a day is ideal. If you live in a cooler climate, plant lavender near southern-facing stone walls or other structures that will radiate heat. Another option is to apply stone mulch around the base of the plant to attract and retain heat.
Besides being beautiful and sweet smelling, you will appreciate lavender because it is:9
- Low maintenance
- Pest- and critter-resistant (thanks to the strong essential oil it produces)
How to Grow Lavender From Cuttings
When growing lavender, you have a choice to get started by using cuttings from an existing plant or planting seeds. If you already have mature lavender plants or can get cuttings from a neighbor or friend, you will have a faster start toward your lavender harvest. The key steps to obtaining and planting cuttings include:10,11
Select and cut only healthy, straight, vigorous stems; choose flowerless stems with good color so the cutting will put all its energy into growing roots instead of flowering
Use a knife to remove cuttings measuring 3 to 4 inches long
Cut hardwood stems slightly below a leaf node (characterized by a small bump)
Remove all leaves from the lower 2 inches of the stem
Use a knife to gently scrape the skin off one side of the bottom portion of each stem
Place cuttings in a small pot prepared with commercial or homemade starter mix
Stick the lower end of each cutting into the soil to a depth of about 2 inches and pat the soil so the cutting will stand up straight
Keep the soil evenly moist until new roots form
Cover the pot with a plastic bag to simulate a greenhouse effect
Lavender softwood cuttings will root in about two to four weeks. Harwood cuttings take longer. The roots are likely in place when new growth appears, or if you feel resistance when giving cutting stems a gentle tug. Remove the plastic bag when roots have formed.
Set the plants in a sunny location and water them when the soil is dry an inch below the surface. For quicker growth, fertilize the plant weekly with one-quarter strength liquid plant fertilizer. In two to three weeks, place the plant in the ground or transplant it into a larger pot with regular potting soil.
Growing Lavender From Seeds
If you do not have access to a mature lavender plant, it is easy and inexpensive to plant lavender seeds. While lavender seeds used to yield plants of variable height and size, yields are more consistent now, and seeds planted from the same packet should result in similar looking plants. To grow lavender plants from seed you should:12
Plant seeds in a seed tray about 10 weeks before the last frost, using a light, well-drained soil mix (remember to plant about three seeds in each cell because lavender is a poor germinator)
Maintain trays in a warm location — about 70 degrees F
Water lightly, from the bottom, as needed, but do not let the soil stay damp because it will foster mildew growth
After your seeds sprout (in about two weeks), move seedlings to a location with full sunlight
When your plants have two or three true leaves, transplant them into their final location
If you are planning to maintain your lavender in pots, choose a breathable pot such as terracotta
You will need to repot lavender in a larger container annually to allow for maximum health and growth
When placing lavender in your garden bed, be sure to:
- Choose an open area with lots of air circulation
- Select a location with full sunlight exposure — at least six or more hours of sun daily
- Maintain a well-drained soil with a pH between 6.7 and 7.3
- Space seeds 12 to 18 inches apart
Once established, lavender is a hardy plant you will surely enjoy given its bright blossoms and aromatic scent. Lavender is a wonderful pollinator plant that will attract bees and butterflies to your yard. No matter how you start it, lavender makes an elegant addition to any container, vegetable garden, flowerbed or landscape.
Growing Lavender Indoors
In cooler climates, you may choose to grow your lavender in containers so you can bring it indoors during cold weather. You might consider growing the Lavandula dentata variety because it produces a smaller plant well suited to pots. Besides choosing a variety that does well indoors, you will want to consider the following tips to ensure the health and well-being of indoor lavender plants:13
To ensure maximum sun exposure, place lavender plants near a southern-facing window and/or use grow lights, especially if you live in a darker northern climate
To avoid the risk of root rot from waterlogged soil, select pots close in size to the root ball of your plant
Add a layer of gravel to the base of your pot to facilitate proper drainage
Use a terracotta pot because it is breathable and will release moisture and prevent rot
If your soil is too acidic, you can simply add a little bit of lime every month to give your lavender the lean soil it needs to thrive
Wait until the soil dries out — up to an inch under the surface — before watering
Maintain your lavender plant in a relatively cool room to avoid shocking it when you take it back outside in spring
Pruning Lavender Ensures Healthy Growth of New Foliage
Pruning lavender is very important because it slows down the growth of woody stems, and encourages the plant to produce new foliage. Ideally, you should:14
- Start pruning when the plant is young to reduce woody growth that does not respond well to pruning
- Prune after flowering and in spring to eliminate winter damage
- Cut established plants receiving full sun back by about one-third to encourage continuous vigorous growth
- Prune older plants just a little higher than the third node above the woody part of the stem in hopes of stimulating growth
Harvesting and Drying Your Lavender in Five Easy Steps
Because many of the decorative and medicinal uses of lavender call for the plant to be dried, you’ll need to allow an extra month between the time you harvest your lavender and when you plan to use it. Below are five easy steps for harvesting and drying lavender:15
- Harvest stems as soon as the blossoms begin to open
- To prevent the possibility of mildew, harvest lavender stems on a sunny day when the plants are completely aired out and dry to the touch
- Cut each stem back to the first set of leaves
- Gather the stems into bundles according to your desired size, and secure each bundle with a rubber band
- Hang each bundle individually on a hook or nail upside down in a cool, dry place that is out of direct sunlight
Ways to Use Lavender
Aside from its therapeutic and topical health benefits, you can use lavender for:
- Cooking: Dried lavender buds or petals can help enhance the aroma of many dishes, most notably desserts and salads. For best results and even taste, be sure to finely grind dried lavender prior to adding it to food. Lavender has a powerful flavor and strong aroma, so use it sparingly to ensure it does not overpower the other ingredients in your dish. Do not eat lavender flowers from florists, garden centers or nurseries because the plants very likely have been treated with pesticides!
- Air freshener: Lavender sachets can add a pleasing aroma to your closets, dresser drawers, linen cabinet and storage bins. Lavender sachets are also a natural and safe alternative to mothballs to help store and preserve seasonal clothing. Similarly, you can place lavender sachets in your car or locker as an alternative to commercial air fresheners.
- Decorating: Lavender flowers smell great and are pleasing to the eye, making them popular choices for home decorating. Lavender makes a great addition to ornamental borders and almost any landscaping design. Lavender placed in a vase or jar adds color and a pleasant scent to any room. The possibilities are endless when displaying lavender in your home, especially if you consult online resources for specific decorating ideas.
Using Lavender Essential Oil
While dried and fresh lavender flowers are delightful, lavender essential oil is undoubtedly the most popular form of lavender in use today. Lavender essential oil is just one of many essential oils manufactured through steam distillation. In this process, lavender flowers are placed over a still and are slowly steamed.
Eventually, the steam forces the essential compounds of the flowers to be released in oil form, which is then gathered and packaged. There are many ways to apply lavender essential oil. Some of the most commonly used methods include:
- Bath: Adding a few drops of lavender oil to your bathwater quickly delivers therapeutic benefits to most of your body
- Compress: Adding lavender oil to a towel compress can help treat sprains and muscle injuries
- Diffuser: Inhaling lavender as it is diffused into the air assists in freer breathing, eases respiratory conditions and stimulates relaxation
- Massage: You can add lavender essential oil to a carrier oil and massage it into your skin to relieve muscle tension, calm frazzled nerves and promote relaxation
- Soak: Soaking your hands or feet in a bowl of warm water containing a few drops of lavender oil is less time consuming than a bath, but an equally great way to unwind after a stressful day
In whatever way you plan to use lavender, you won’t regret the time you invest in growing this colorful, aromatic plant. Once established, you can enjoy lavender — in all its wonderful forms — for many years to come.
Cautions Related to Lavender Oil
While I wholeheartedly support the use of natural oils, please note the following cautions associated with the use of lavender essential oil:
- Children and infants: While using diluted lavender oil topically or in aromatherapy is generally considered safe for adults, it may not be recommended for children and infants. On her website Using Essential Oils Safely, aromatherapist Kristi Martin provides detailed information about how to best evaluate the safety of essential oils for healthy children and infants, according to their age.16
- Possible allergy: If you have sensitive skin and are prone to allergic reactions, do a skin test before using lavender oil. Simply apply one drop of lavender oil to your underarm and watch for signs of a negative reaction.
- Pregnant or nursing women: It is best to avoid the use of lavender oil when you are pregnant or nursing because its risks and potential side effects have not been tested.
- Skin and eye sensitivity: Applying pure lavender oil to directly to your skin (especially open wounds) may cause sensitivity and irritation. As such, I recommend adding lavender oil to a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or olive oil, before applying it to your skin. Avoid getting lavender oil in your eyes and mucous membranes. If this happens, use water to rinse it out immediately.