Lavender takes pride of place for me, not because it is particularly versatile as a healing herb – others such as fennel and yarrow far outstrip it in that regard; but because it is just so beautiful.
Said to bring protection to the household if planted at the front gate, lavender has long been a favourite in the garden, in herb lore, and in the medicine chest. Its Latin origin “lavare” to wash, bears testimony not only to it’s refreshing smell but also to antiseptic qualities.
Much fuss is made in some books about ensuring that only the flower of English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is used as a healing herb but in this (as in many things) I follow Yvette van Wyk, one of our best-know South African gurus on herbs. Yvette suggests that all major species, including the French (Lavandula dentata) are fine, and that all aerial parts are usable.
Lavender is perhaps best known as a headache cure. (Always remember of course that the cause of a headache should be investigated especially if headaches persist. Many headaches are simply the result of mild dehydration, and can thus be best dealt with by drinking a tall glass of clean water.
Other common causes of headaches are constipation, neck tension, allergens, and bad lighting.) Lavender is particularly effective as a relief from tension headaches. Make a strong cup of lavender tea (officially called an infusion – see box on making infusions). Sip the tea, and inhale the wonderful smell for (almost) instant soothing.
Lavender is also fantastic for insomnia. Drink a cup of tea just before bedtime, or sleep with a sprig between your pillow and pillowcase. Also good for calming the nerves, lifting the spirits, and curing sore throats (gargle with a warm infusion) and bad breath (due not only to its sweet smell but also its antiseptic qualities).
As an antiseptic, I find the essential oil the most convenient and never travel without it. (It is essential to use organic essential oils, as there are no pesticide or fungicide residues. The distillation process is also done slowly, with as little heat and pressure as possible. This ensures the therapeutic value of the oil.) It is mild enough to be used straight on the skin if necessary and is great for insect bites and small injuries. Ideally it should be combined with warm water to clean out grazes, small cuts, and the like, and can also be used like this as a gargle (add about 5 drops to a glass of warm water). Apply a drop to each temple for headache relief.
Lavender oil is one of the best treatments for minor burns. (Apply only after the burn has cooled.) Add a few drops of essential oil to the bath to relieve tension, and to take the sting out of sunburn. Lavender is one of the essential oils that is mild enough to be safe for children.
(I use the Latin name to avoid confusion as the common names bulbinella and bulbine seem to lead to arguments in herbs circles. The plant I mean has long thinnish succulent leaves, and spike-like clusters of small yellow or orange star-shaped flowers.)
This wonderful indigenous plant is, like Lavender, an outstanding remedy for minor burns, cuts and abrasions, and insect bites. Simply break off a leaf and squeeze the juice or jelly onto affected areas.
The ease of application makes this an excellent herb to plant with your culinary herbs just outside the kitchen door – not to cook with,but to use for kitchen mishaps like burns and cuts.
The juice of Bulbine frutescens also helps to stop bleeding. Use also for rough and cracked skin and lips, ringworm, and cold sores. Scabies also seems relieved by regular application, but remember that Scabies is caused by a small bug, so any treatment of scabies must be holistic and include thorough laundering and ironing of bedding and clothes (to get rid of family and friends).