As an herb, lavender has been in documented use for over 2,500 years. In ancient times lavender was used for mummification and perfume by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and peoples of Arabia.
Romans used lavender oils for bathing, cooking, and scenting the air, and they most likely gave it the Latin root from which we derive the modern name (either lavare–to wash, or livendula–livid or bluish). The flower’s soothing “tonic” qualities, the insect-repellent effects of the strong scent, and the use of the dried plant in smoking mixtures also added to the value of the herb in ancient times..
Lavender is mentioned often in the Bible, not by the name lavender but rather by the name used at that time–spikenard (from the Greek name for lavender, naardus, after the Syrian city Naarda). In the gospel of Luke the writer reports: “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.”
Another ancient Christian reference to lavender involves how it got its scent. The plant is believed to have been taken from the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve. However, the powerful perfume came later. According to legend, the clothing of baby Jesus bestowed the scent when Mother Mary laid them upon a bush to dry. This may explain why the plant is also regarded as a holy safeguard against evil. In many Christian houses, a cross of lavender was hung over the door for protection.
Perhaps first domesticated by the Arabians, lavender spread across Europe from Greece. Around 600 BC, lavender may have come from the Greek Hyeres Islands into France and is now common in France, Spain, Italy and England. The ‘English’ lavender varieties were not locally developed in England but rather introduced in the 1600s, right around the time the first lavender plants were making their way to the Americas. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, the washing women were known as “lavenders” and they used lavender to scent drawers and dried the laundry on lavender bushes. Also during this time, lavender was grown in so-called “infirmarian’s gardens” in monasteries, along with many other medicinal herbs. According to the German nun Hildegard of Bingen, who lived from 1098-1179, lavender “water,”–a decoction of vodka, gin, or brandy mixed with lavender–is great for migraine headaches.
Its holy reputation may have increased during the Great Plague in London in the 17th century, when it was suggested that a bunch of lavender fastened to each wrist would protect the wearer against the deadly disease. Furthermore, grave-robbers were known to wash in Four Thieves Vinegar, which contained lavender, after doing their dirty work; they rarely contracted the disease. In 16th-century France, lavender was also used to resist infection. For example, glove-makers, who were licensed to perfume their wares with lavender, escaped cholera at that time.
European royal history is also filled with stories of lavender use. Charles VI of France demanded lavender-filled pillows wherever he went. Queen Elizabeth I of England required lavender conserve at the royal table. She also wanted fresh lavender flowers available every day of the year, a daunting task for a gardener if you consider the climate of England. Louis XIV also loved lavender and bathed in water scented with it. Queen Victoria used a lavender deodorant, and both Elizabeth I and II used products from the famous lavender company, Yardley and Co. of London.
Lavender is a unique fragrance produced by the combination of 180 different constituents and is widely used in the perfume industry to add a top or middle note to commercial products. In the world of professional sniffers, it has a green, hay-like sweetness and gives “fruity aspects” to perfumes and other scented products. Lavender is widely grown in England for commercial use, and the Provence region of France is renowned as a world leader in growing and producing lavender.
In the United States and Canada, the Shakers were the first to grow lavender commercially. A strict sect of English Quakers who most likely had little use for lavender’s amorous qualities (they were celibate), they developed herb farms upon their arrival from England. They produced their own herbs and medicines and sold them to the “outside world.” Later a New York advertising firm picked them up and sold the simple products worldwide.
As an herbal medicine, lavender is widely utilized. For soothing, relaxing qualities few herbs can be claimed as effective. Constituents of the oils found in lavender can treat hyperactiviety; insomnia; flatulence; bacteria, fungus, and microbial activity on gums, airborne molds, and (in mixture with pine, thyme, mint, rosemary, clove, and cinnamon oils) Staphyloccus bacteria. Lavender may even be useful against impotence. In a study of men, the scent of pumpkin and lavender rated as the scent found most arousing.
Lavender and love are an ancient match. In an apocryphal book of the Bible, we again hear of the use of lavender. Here the story tells us that Judith anointed herself with perfumes including lavender before seducing Holofernes, the enemy commander. This allowed her to murder him and thus save the City of Jerusalem. The overwhelming power of this seductive scent was also used by Cleopatra to seduce Julius Cesaer and Mark Antony. The Queen of Sheba offered spikenard with frankincense and myrrh to King Solomon
By Tudor times, lavender brew was being sipped by maidens on St. Lukes day to divine the identity of their true loves. They’d chant, “St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see.” Lavender in the pillows of alpine girls brought hope of romance, while lavender under the bed of newlyweds ensured passion. Finally, a famous nursery rhyme called “Lavender Blue, Dilly Dilly” was written in 1680 and talks of “Whilst you and I, diddle, diddle…keep the bed warm.” Lavender-inspired loving strikes again!
(sources: Lavender by Elen Spector Platt and Lavender: Practical Inspirations by Tess Evelegh)