Lavender is an herb with magical properties. The tiny flowers, growing plentifully on the straight, dark, up-reaching stalks, hold a secret inside—and release it into the air as a gift to anyone close enough to breathe it in. The secret? The scent of lavender soothes the soul and calms the restless human heart.
Lavender is precious in my family. One time, my sister Alice and I stopped by a lavender farm on the road not far from the little town of Lompoc in the Central Coast region of California. We were celebrating Alice’s 21st birthday that weekend while visiting our brother Andrew and his family.
Alice walked through the lavender growing on the farm, through the low rows of English and French lavender, breathing in deeply. She glanced back at me watching her—then spun her skirt and started dancing. She was so young and free that day, with porcelain-white skin, sun-streaked hair, and big blue eyes, sparkling with humor, mischief, and delight.
Lavender is a hardy herb, and being part of the mint family, it grows prolifically once planted. When my brother Abraham and his wife Heather bought their home in the rough-and-tumble city of Vallejo, in the San Francisco Bay area, the first thing they did was build a strong, sturdy fence. The next thing they did was plant lavender under the willow tree by the fence’s gate. That way, when they came home, the scent of peace would waft into their awareness as they opened the gate and walked the short, stone path to the front door.
“What a lovely willow,” I said to Abraham during a visit, while we stood under it. He smiled—and crushed a few lavender blossoms in his hand to release their scent more powerfully into the air.
Heather also loves the scent of lavender. At Christmastime, she gifts lavender body wash and face cream to all the women in our family. At first, I feared that their scents might be too much for me. (I’m sensitive to allergies.) But Heather’s lavender gifts have always been sweet and soothing and help me easily fall asleep, especially on nights after anxious days.
As a midwife who attends home births, I treasure lavender essential oil. Many pregnant women have discovered its power to soothe and calm, so it has become a special part of many birth experiences. Sometimes I arrive at the home of a woman in labor and instantly catch the scent of lavender coming from a diffuser in the expectant mother’s bedroom. She is gently rocking her body, on hands and knees, with each contraction and remembering to breathe the lavender in deeply—and then breathe out deeply to encourage the baby to come down, come out, and be born.
I remember working with another midwife in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. At times, the work stressed us, but we persisted—even when we were exhausted going from birth to birth and prenatal appointment to prenatal appointment. Once as we were driving between visits, my sister-midwife abruptly grabbed a bottle of lavender-scented water from the glove compartment of her car and spritzed us all over with it.
“There!” she declared. “That ought to do it!” I immediately noticed a mood shift in both of us. It was magical.
“Yes. That’s so much better,” I responded.
I’ve been lucky enough in my life to walk through several medieval castle gardens in England and France, and I’ve caught the scent of lavender there, too. During times of plague, people kept in close. Lavender fills the air with a fresh scent, and then—as now—people used it in their bedding, clothes, and hair. The Romans used it to help repel insects, ward off infection, and heal wounds. Ancient Greeks used lavender to fight insomnia and cure backache. In the Middle Ages, churches used it on high holy days: people believed it could ward off evil spirits.
Recently, the power of lavender came to me at the right time: I found myself quickly dashing off a note to my sister-in-law to bring some lavender cream to Abraham in the hospital, because its anti-inflammatory qualities would help with bruising after my brother’s recent surgery. The scent, I knew, would also be the familiar scent of home for him.
A few days later, I sat with Abraham in the hospital. He was sedated, breathing with the help of a ventilator. Even though he was unconscious and his eyes were closed, I knew he could still sense things: he could still hear; he could still smell; he could still feel. I gently rubbed lavender lotion on his face. “Abraham, remember when we stood under the beautiful willow tree in your yard and breathed in that lovely lavender scent?” I whispered in his ear. I wanted my brother to smell something other than the hospital room as he lay there, waiting for whatever happened next.
That night, the scent of lavender was growing outside the gate to heaven, which opened to receive my brother’s life. ❖
This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #137.