Which lavender should I eat?
There is some confusion in Australia as to what lavender is edible. I often see recipes for lavender scones, jam, tea nnd many other semi sweet dishes. Problem is that they rarley talk about the particular type of lavender to use. Indeed they often have images of the wrong ones. The incorrect varieties are not good for you and shouldn’t be used as they do not taste nice.
The correct variety to use is one of the English Lavender cultivars. Originally ‘English Lavender’ referred to Lavandula angustifolia ssp angustifolia and its cultivars. However there are high camphor cultivars of Lavandin that are mistakenly called English Lavender.
L. angustifolia is part of the group known as Spike or Spica Lavenders due to the flowers being borne at the end of a spike or flower stem, which can be up to 50cm long. The other two species are L. lanata and L. latifolia. It has the following synonyms: L. officionalis, L. vera & L. spica. Lavandula lanata, is called The Woolly Lavender due to its woolly appearance and silvery foliage, it is easily distinguished from the English Lavenders.
The third member of the group, L. latifolia is known as The Spike Lavender. The mature plants are quite different from those of L. angustifolia. This plant is again, not very common in commercial nurseries. It generally flowers in late summer / early autumn and the stems are up to half a meter long and often branched into three. The flowers are 5-15 cm long, and are usually interrupted and shaped like a rat’s tail. The bush is only small (up to 60cm), and both the folage and flowers have a strong camphor scent and should not be used in cooking but make good pot-pourri.
L. angustifolia in contrast usually flowers in late spring / early summer. It is the first of the Spike Lavenders to flower. The flowers are shorter, squatter and rarely interrupted. The stems are generally shorter without any branching. The flowers are usually deeper in color and along with the foliage have a much sweeter aroma, with little or no camphor. It is a bigger plant and can be up to 0.8 metre without flowers.
Between the two are the Lavandins (Lavandula x intermedia), which are hybrids of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia, and commence flowering between January and March. Many of the named hybrids are are now being sold in Australian nurseries. They have characteristics from both parents. Most of them are more floriferous than either parent and have aromas that have some camphor but not as much L. latifolia.
It is the hard to tell them apart unless they are in flower or grown together. The true Enghlish lavender has short, squat flower heads, the others geenrally have longer cone shaped flowers. The best cultivars for sooking are those with low camphor content. Camphor is that nose clearing mentholated fragrance common in the non culinary forms. If the flowers have little wings, are very long or occur in winter then that variety should not be used in cooking.
The flowers should be harvested when the majority of the florets have opened and then hung in a cool dark place to dry. After a week or two take them down and strip the flowers off the stem. Store in an airtight bag in a cool dry place. Keep them ion the dark if you want preserve the color.
Use the flowers carefully until you are comfortable with the strength of flavour. To help cook with lavender here are a couple of recipes:
LAVENDER ICE CREAM
This is a really nice treat.
1. Take equal quantities of water and sugar
2. Mix together over low heat.
3. Cook for ten minutes or until mixture starts to thicken then add one to three tablespoons (depending on how strong you want the flavour) of partially dried lavender flowers.
4. Remove from heat and let stand for three hours.
5. Mix in with a good quality ice cream and then add the lavender or you can make your own ice cream and add the lavender syrup into the egg and cream mixture. Home made ice cream is great but takes some work
1. 250g good quality butter
2. 500ml flour
3. 120ml castor sugar
4. 40ml dried lavender flowers
Beat butter and sugar to smooth creamy paste. Sift in flour and mix well. Add inlavender flowers and mix until evenly dispersed. Chill dough for one hour
Roll out dough to about 7mm. Cut into preferred shapes. Bake in a preheated (160C) oven for about 20 minutes or until a golden brown. Serve with fresh made lemon tea.
I hope this gives you some ideas. There are plenty more recipes in either Lavender Sweet Lavender by Judyth McLeod or The Essential Lavender by Virginia McNaughton or on the internet. Cape Lavender in WA also has some fantastic Lavender wines. Well worth trying.
Be careful when buying plants to make sure you are getting the right plant. Good nurseries will sell the correct plant and the Renaissance plants in the mustard pots are correctly labeled.