Lavender is for lovers true,
Which evermore be faine;
Desiring always for to have
Some pleasure for their paine:
And when that they obtained have
The love that they require,
Then have they all their perfect joie,
And quenched is the fire.
By Clement Robinson
Handefull of Pleasant Delites, 1584
Throughout the millennia this lovely fragrant, purple herb has captured the hearts of poets and peasants, cooks and apothecaries. Today with the popularity of aromatherapy, lavender continues to waft its scent in and out of a multitude of products. Appropriately, the word itself in Latin is “lavare,” which is “to wash,” referring to the use of infusions of the plants. There are many species and varieties with a multitude of different fragrances, uses, colors and flavors. True lavender from the mint family (Lamiaceae) is a native plant of the mountains of the Mediterranean region. As the merits of lavender spread through travel and commerce its identification and use grew, literally.
The terms widely used for some of the species are , “English lavender,” “French lavender,” and “Spanish lavender.” “English lavender” is commonly referred to as L. angustifolia, though some references say the proper term is “Old English Lavender”. The name “French lavender” may be used to refer to either L. stoechas, L. x intermedia, or to L. dentata. “Spanish lavender” may be used to refer to L. stoechas, L. lanata or L. dentata. The characteristics of this herb, preferring hot sunny days, dry air, and non-enriched, well-drained soil allow it to be grown and harvested in the Colorado climate as an ornamental plant in the garden and landscape , as a culinary herb, and also commercially for the extraction of essential oils. The most widely cultivated species is the “English lavender” variety ~ Lavandula angustifolia.
As an herb, lavender has been in documented use for over 2500 years. The historic use and recognition of lavender is almost as old as the history of man. Some of the more interesting uses are noted below on A Timeline of Lavender:
A Timeline of Lavender
Ancient world ~
Lavender was used in ancient Egypt for embalming and cosmetics. In tombs, jars filled with ungents containing something resembling lavender were found. These ungents were used only by the royal families and high priests in cosmetics, massage oils, and medicines. Egyptian Hieroglyphics lavender was used for cosmetics, mixed with beeswax and placed under wigs to melt over the head to release the perfume,
The first written record of the healing uses of lavender appears to be that of a Greek physician in 77 AD. At that time, he noted when taken internally, relieved indigestion, headaches and sore throats. Externally, lavender could be used to clean wounds and burns or treat skin ailments.
Roman soldiers took lavender on campaigns with them to dress war wounds for its healing and antiseptic qualities. Flowers were sold for 100 denarii per pound, which was about the same as a month’s wages for a farm laborer, or fifty haircuts from the local barber.
Middle Ages ~
Contrary to popular belief, English Lavenders are not native to England, but acquired the name due to its popularity in England during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Queen Elizabeth, who loved lavender, used it in tea to treat her frequent migraines and as a perfume. It is one of the oldest perfumes used in England. She was instrumental in the development of lavender farms.
Henrietta Marie, wife of King Charles I, who brought cosmetics to the English court, used lavender in perfumed soaps, potpourris, and water for washing and bathing.
King Charles VI of France had his poufs stuffed with lavender.
In the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen noted that oil of lavender was effective in the treatment of head lice and fleas.
In 16th-century France, lavender was regarded as an effective and reliable protection against infection. Glove makers who were licensed to perfume their wares with lavender often seemed to escape cholera. Seventeenth-century lavender was found in most herbals as a cure all. The great English herbalists all wrote about lavender. Later lavender became the main constituent in posies during the Great Plague of 1665 to ward off the evil pestilence and mask the stench of decaying carrion. Because of tragic endemic, opportunists drove up the price making it available only to those who were desperate and could afford the inflated price.
Victorian Era ~
Queen Victoria was a great enthusiast in the use of lavender and very fashionable among the ladies. They bought it from street sellers who brought it up from Mitcham the center of lavender oil production. Fresh lavender was dried and put into muslin bags for wardrobes, used to wash walls and furniture. It was also used to repel insects, treat lice, as a perfume and a potpourri, in furniture polish and soap as a cure-all in household medicine cupboards.
Lavender was introduced into England in the 1600s. It is said that Queen Elizabeth prized a lavender conserve (jam) at her table, so lavender was produced as a jam at that time, as well as used in teas both medicinally and for its taste.
During this period in England, despite the need for supply and demand, lavender production nearly died out because of the pressure of increasing land values.
Modern times ~
Bundles of dried lavender were given to women in labor for squeezing during contractions as the fragrance released was known to calm the pain and facilitate an unencumbered birth.
Lavender posies or sachets were given to couples as marriage gifts to bring good fortune and peace to the newly formed household.
Lavender sachets continued to be prevalent in more recent times as a linen scent and a moth repellent in England and colonial America. Additionally, it was well known in colonial America that throwing wet linen and clothing over lavender bushes would absorb the scent of lavender as they dried.
At the turn of the 20th century in traditional southern French cooking, lambs have been known to graze on lavender as it is alleged to make their meat more tender and fragrant.
Rene Gattefosse (1881-1950) one of the founders of modern day aromatherapy, verified the healing and antiseptic qualities of lavender when he burned his head badly while working in his lab.
Just before World War I, perfumers and the French government saw lavender production as a means of keeping people from leaving the area so they cleared the almond orchards and planted lavender.
Lavender oil was used to dress war wounds during World War I as antiseptics were in short supply.
During the 1970s, a blend of herbs called herbes de Provence was invented by spice wholesalers, where culinary lavender is added to the mixture in the North American version of the spice blend.
Continuing into the 21st century with its use in aromatherapy, delectable culinary infusions and beautifying our homes, lavender ~ is a plant for yesterday, today and tomorrow. Who knows where it will “grow” next in and out of this world!