Over the years my sleep pattern has hardly changed. Just as I did in my twenties, I go to bed between 10.30 and 11.00pm and am usually asleep within 15 minutes. Then, at 5.00am – never later than 6.30 – I get up to work – which most often involves writing. My night’s six hours have always had the occasional interruptions; in my twenties and early thirties they were in response to the demands of small children, nowadays it is to meet the traditional needs of older men. For completeness sake I should add that I often doze in the afternoon which at work was a ‘power nap’ and these days is called a siesta.
Knowing my pattern, it was a complete surprise when, a few weeks ago, I woke up one morning at 8.00am after an unbroken night. Most unusually, Rohan did the same. It then took at least a quarter-of-an-hour to be fully awake – normally I am alert when I open my eyes. Both of us were very surprised about our late waking but despite much puzzling, initially we could find no explanation. Then an idea crossed my mind – could it be that we had overdosed on lavender?
Each year in September, Rohan sews envelope-sized bags which she fills with the fragrant lavender buds – some bags for presents, some to keep . Bag-making apart, the process takes days and involves four key steps all of which are led by Rohan helped as and when by me.
The first step is to prune the lavender bushes by cutting the base of the stems that have grown since Spring. The cut stems are about forty centimetres long and at their tips is the ‘spike’ with its cluster of fragrant buds that were once encased by violet petals. This year there were enough cut stems to fill three large baskets. Next the bud-laden spikes are cut from the stems and spread out to dry on trays (see the tray on the left in the illustration). Finally the buds are separated from the spikes and put on other trays ready to be packed (the tray on the right of the illustration is full of loosened buds)
This last separation stage is done by hand, leaning over the trays and gently rubbing the buds from their sprigs with our fingers. For an outside observer, this work must look like a labour of yesteryear.
I had promised Rohan that this time I would take responsibility for doing the separation and for three hours on the evening before my excessively sleepy night I, and for a period Rohan, lent over the tray breathing in waves of lavender fumes as they wafted by. By ten o’clock, with the job done we were ready for bed. If the lavender scent had any effect, I would have had an overdose!
It was not until at least an hour after my eight-o’clock waking that the idea of the lavender came to mind and within minutes I was searching the web. The results left no doubt; the consensus was clear – inhaling the scent of lavender helps people sleep. I next asked two friends their opinion and both had found that lavender improved sleeping, one telling how if she put one of Rohan’s lavender bags on her pillow it made all the difference. Finally, our local chemist told me that she sold bottles of lavender oil to be used expressly for the relief of insomnia. And all this was new to me!
How extraordinary it was that this one-time clinical pharmacologist who for years taught medical students how drugs and medicines work and are used, had no knowledge of lavender’s soporific effect. What’s more, this ignorance spread to most other ‘natural’ medicines in common use. Indeed, I dismissed their efficacy, and that too is odd for one who knows that many conventional medicines and drugs have their origins in plants, amongst them aspirin, atropine, morphine, warfarin, digoxin and caffeine.
While academic knowledge of the sleep-inducing properties of lavender passed me by, there must have been a flicker of insight for me to suddenly realise that lavender might have been a cause of my sleepiness on that oddest of nights. How ingenious it is of the brain to be able to dredge up information from its depths when needed.
And as an afterthought, if lavender is that good at helping people sleep, and if its active component is safe to be used without the risk of side effects, shouldn’t the pharmaceutical industry be finding a way to bottle it?
The illustration shows a photograph of two large trays each about 60cm across. In the tray on the left are lavender buds still attached to the spikes previously at the end of their stems. On the right the buds are loose having been separated from the spikes – these buds are now ready to be put into bags.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Jennie, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.
12 thoughts on “A Night Out”
Very interesting Joe. – I was advised recently by one of my girl friends to spray lavender on my pillow to improve my sleep! I bought a spray from M & S. which was a wonderful help!
Dear Caroline, Thank you for your comment. It seems that I am one of the few people who did know of lavender’s hypnotic action. Love, Joe. PS See you at the beginning of October.
Thank you Joe and Rohan. I gave one of your lavender bags to a friend for her first night out of hospital after a knee replacement. She is adamant that she had a peaceful and long night’s sleep, thanks to the lavender bag.
Dear Jackie, Thank you for your comments, and of course for helping make the lavender bags when you were here in Tréguennec. I see that the blog arrived at last. Love, Joe
How interesting. I’ve been aware for a long time that lavender is supposed to help you sleep, but have always been sceptical. It’s probably a matter of dose, and you probably got a big one. The idea that lavender had this effect might have come from the experiences of people processing lavender, like you were doing. The way people use it when they buy it for that effect (in sprays and so in), is maybe too small a dose for any noticeable effect. I like the clever title of the blog.
Dear Andrea, Thank you for your comments. It seems that your approach to lavender is very much like mine was. I have been rather forced to reassess. I am glad you like the title – it tickled me too. Love, Joe
Fascinating piece of first hand research Joe! – I’m now going to try harvesting my lavender in the way you did and sew up some bags for my insomniac friends too. Thanks for the tip.
Dear Merrily, Thank you for your comments. Please let me know how your experiment goes. Love, Joe
Ahhh, that brings up lovely 2021 memories of helping Rohan cut the lavender and separating the tips!
I’ve know about the sleep inducing properties of lavender and have a the little bags in my pillow case, with my nightwear and linen cupboard. Blissful in a bath or shower, and then zzzzzzz zzzzzz.
Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comments. By tradition, September guests almost always find themselves on lavender separation duty so – thank you in retrospect. And – it is odd that we have been making lavender bags for years and only now discovered their special nighttime properties. Love, Joe
Another most enjoyable entry, Joe. Lavender has certainly been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years. I think that it’s even mentioned in the bible to clean wounds. Isn’t it written that Mary Magdelen apparently used it?
I had a nasal stick, (a bit like a Vick type thing) to put up your nose and inhale when I had trouble sleeping, a few years ago, and this worked very well.
DearRissoles, Thank you for your comments. The problem is that the ancients almost certainly got more things wrong than right. You pays your money and takes your choice. I would like still someone to do robust trial on lavender just to be sure. Yours, Joe