Lavender: Then and Now
If you are traveling in Provence, you will perhaps admire the purple haze of lavender fields. Lavender (lavendula angustifolia), known as “l’herb de Provence,” is a small aromatic perennial shrub grown for use in sachets and soap and for lavender oil which is used both as a medicinal and as a perfume. Fresh, crushed, or dried the herb is used as a tea and as a stimulant, sedative, antiseptic, linen-closet freshener and moth repellant, in bathwater, to treat burns and bites; “wands” of stems can be tied in bunches and burned as incense sticks. There is even lavender-flavored lemonade.
Historically, lavender (from the Latin verb “lavare,” to wash) dates from ancient times. The ancient Egyptians used it for cosmetics and for embalming; Tutankhamen’s tomb contained jars of lavender-scented unguents. The Greek philosopher Diogenes anointed his feet with lavender oil so that it “envelopes my whole body and gratefully ascends to my nose.”
Lavender is mentioned in the Bible as “spikenard,” from the Greek name for the Syrian city of Naarda). “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” (Book of Luke)
Christian legend tells us Adam and Eve took lavender from the Garden of Eden; the fragrance came later when Mother Mary laid the laundered clothing of Baby Jesus on a lavender bush to dry. Many early Christian households hung a cross of lavender over the door for protection against evil.
The first written record of the healing uses of lavender is attributed to the Greek physician Dioscordes in 77 A.D. Working for Emperor Nero, this physician collected plants and experimented with their use in washing and in repelling insects. Roman soldiers took lavender on campaign with them to dress war wounds and treat skin ailments. Romans at home fumigated sick rooms with it and sweetened the air by either strewing it on the floor or painting their walls with a lavender infusion. The Romans also perfumed their hair, bodies, clothes, beds and baths. Women hung lavender next to their beds to incite passion. A bunch of lavender was placed under the bed of newlyweds.
Lavender is thought to have been first domesticated in Arabia and, with the 7th century Arab conquest of the Middle East and Spain, the use of lavender spread throughout Europe. Arab physicians and researchers such as Avicenna (980 A.D.
to 1037 A.D.) in particular studied medicinal uses of the herb.
Nuns and monks in the dark ages preserved herbal lore by copying ancient manuscripts (originally translated by the Arabs from Syrian and Old Persian). The Holy Roman Empire in 812 A.D. charged monasteries with growing medicinal plants and flowers. Lavender is first mentioned in England in 1301, in the records of Merton Priory where it was used to raise money for King Edward I. In the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen noted lavender’s effectiveness in treating head lice and fleas.
When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, lavender culture moved to domestic gardens. Traditionally it was planted near the laundry, and washed clothing was laid over the plants to dry with an enticing fragrance. Mixed with beeswax lavender made furniture polish.
Queen Elizabeth I drank a lavender tea to treat her headaches and was so enthusiastic about the plant she encouraged the development of lavender farms. Charles VI of France stuffed his cushions with lavender. Glovemakers in France were licensed to perfume their gloves with lavender because it was believed to prevent cholera.
Queen Victoria loved lavender! She appointed a special “Purveyor of Lavender Essence to the Queen,”and lavender came to be fashionable among her ladies. Street sellers in London sold lavender dried; it was then put into muslin sachet bags for wardrobes and between bedsheets. Young women wore small sachets in their cleavage to attract suitors. London became the center of lavender oil production.
In America, Shakers were the first to grow lavender commercially. Later, when the founder of modern-day aromatherapy, Rene Gattefosse, burned his hand while working in his laboratory, he used lavender oil which stopped the pain and healed the burn with no infection or scarring.
Provence is now the world’s primary lavender producer; prior to World War I, the French government (and perfume-makers) saw lavender production as a means of keeping people from leaving the area of southern France, so the almond orchards were cleared to plant lavender. Today, lavender farms thrive in California, Texas, Washington, and even upstate New York
The plant can be propagated from cuttings or from seed, requires good drainage, likes chalky soil and lots of sunshine and needs no fertilizer. Extracting the essential oil is by steam distillation, just like brewing whiskey in a still. One acre of lavender yields 300 to 1800 pounds of dried flowers or 2 gallons of essential oil.