Historical review of the use of lavender

The classical physicians

Lavender has been used as a healing plant and was first mentioned by Dioscorides (c. 40—90 AD) who found what was probably Lavandula stoechas growing on the islands of Stoechades (now known as Hyeres); this was used in Roman communal baths. Dioscorides attributed to the plant some laxative and invigorating properties and advised its use in a tea-like preparation for chest complaints. The author also recounts that Galen (129—99 ad) added lavender to his list of ancient antidotes for poison and bites and thus Nero’s physician used it in anti-poison pills and for uterine disorders. Lavender in wine was taken for snake bites stings, stomach aches, liver, renal and gall disorders, jaundice and dropsy.

Pliny differentiated between Lavandula stoechas and Lavandula vera, the latter was apparently used only for diluting expensive perfumes. Pliny the Elder advocated lavender for bereavement as well as promoting menstruation.

Abbess Hildegard

The Abbess Hildegard (1098—1179) of Bingen near the Rhine in what is now Germany, was the first person in the Middle Ages to clearly distinguish between Lavandula vera and Lavandula spica ():

On Palsy one who is tormented should take galangale, with half as much nutmeg, and half as much Spike lavender as nutmeg, and equal weights of githerut (probably Gith or Black Cumin) and lovage – but of each one, more than the spike lavender. To these he should add equal weights of female fern and saxifrage (these two together should be equal to the five precious ingredients). Pulverise this. If one is well, he should eat this powder on bread, if ill, he should eat an electuary (soft pill) made form it.

In a chapter on lavender she alluded to its strong odour and many virtues ():

Lavender (Lavandula) is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odour. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die. Its odour clears the eyes (since it posses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs very many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified).

Lavender continued to be used for de-lousing until about 1870s, blotting paper being soaked in the oil and applied to children’s heads.

Hildegard also recommends this decoction of lavender for pulmonary congestion, translated from the French ():

To cook lavender of spic (spike) with wine, or if one has no wine, with honey and water, put it in case to cool often, soften the suffering in the liver, and in the lungs and the vapour in the chest (pulmonary congestion), and the wine of lavender I assure you is a science pure and clean’.

(PL 1140 C)

Hildegard distinguishes expressly between the ‘lavande aspic sauvage’ (Lavandula spica) and the noble ‘lavande de jardin’ (Lavandula vera). Furthermore, in her descriptions of the different types of rest and sleep she states that to prepare the nervous system for sleep, a walk followed by a bath steeped in lavender is beneficial.

Summary of uses recommended by Hildegard

For palsy (a powder with other ingredients), for head lice, to clear the eyes when smelt, to curb malign spirits and for pulmonary congestion in wine or honey. To ensure a restful nights sleep she recommends a bath with lavender after a walk.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, ‘strewing herbs’ in churches and houses incorporated lavender. Lavender was used in medicines in medieval Wales and England in conjunction with numerous other herbs, including herb robert, valerian, wormwood, elecampagne, parsley, fennel etc.

A poem of the school of medicine in Salerno around 1020 AD entitled ‘Flos Medicinae’ (de Renzi) gives the following lines:

Salvia, castoreum, lavandula, primula veris,
Nasturtiom, athanas haec sanat paralytica membra
(Sage, Beaver gland excretion, lavender, primrose,
Nasturtium, are cleansing and soothing for paralytic limbs)

William Turner (1508–68)

He stated that ‘because wyse men founde by experience that it was good to washe mennis heades with, which had anye deceses therein’. Indeed Turner was a passionate gardener, creating gardens wherever he was living, he writes of growing ‘Stechas or Lavender Gentle (L. Stoechas), a variety not seen in England, growing in my gardens in Germany’. And ‘Stechas groweth in the islands of France over against Marseilles which are called Stechades, whereupon the herb got its name’.

John Gerard (1545-1612)

First, he writes of common lavender – L. flore caeruleo (or most probably Lavandula vera) the drawing of which has round tips to the leaves and slightly drooping flowers. White floured lavender – L. flore albo. And lavender spike or in Spanish spica – Lavandula minor sive spicae which he describes as having pointed tips to the leaves and a more upright habit (if lavender can ever be described as upright in its behaviour!). He then says that:

We have growing in our English gardens and being of a small kind, altogether lesser than the other, and the floures of a more purple colour and grow much less and shorter heads, yet have a far more grateful smell. The leaves are less and whiter than those of the ordinary sort. This doth grow in plentie in His Majesties Private Garden at Whitehall. And this is called Spike, with out addition and sometimes Lavender Spike and this by distillation is made that vulgarly known and used oile which is termed Oleum Spicae, or oile of Spike. In Spain and Languedocke in France, most of the mountains and desert fields, are as it were covered over with Lavender. In these cold countries they are planted in gardens.

He reminds us that some think it is the sweet herb cassia which Virgil mentions, but states wisely that here is another type of cassia sold in the shops called cassia lignea, and also cassia nigra or cassia fistula.

He writes: ‘Lavender is hot and dry in the third degree, and of a thin substance, consisting mainly of airy and spiritual parts, good for cold diseases of the head’. He advocates: ‘The distilled water of lavender smelt unto, or the temples and forehead bathed therewith is refreshing for those with Catalepsie, a light Megrim (migraine) and to them that have the falling sickness (epilepsy) and that swoune (faint) much’. And continues, ‘the floures of lavender picked from the knaps, I mean the blew part and not the huske, mixed with Cinnamon, Nutmegs and Cloves made into a pouder and given to drinke in distilled lavender water, doth help the panting and passions of the heart; prevaleth against giddiness or swimming of the braine, and palsie’. In other words a decoction of lavender distillate with powdered lavender flowers, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, is beneficial to what may be panic attacks, palpitations, giddiness and the shakes associated with Parkinson’s.

He cautions against taking lavender ‘when there is an abundance of humours’ and he advised against the use of lavender ‘taken in distilled wine: in which such kinds of herbes, floures, or seeds, and certain spices are infused and steeped, though most men do so rashly’. He continues ‘for by using such hot things that fill and stuffe the head, both the disease is made greater, and the sick man also brought into danger’. This is probably referring to the distillation of herbs, spices and wines, which produced very potent spirits in the stills which were abundant in big households of the period.

Gerard also suggests that a conserve made with lavender flowers and sugar is also very good for the diseases previously mentioned, taken in the amount of a bean in the morning fasting and advises washing those with the palsie with either lavender distillate or lavender oil and olive oil.

Gerard also admonishes the ‘unlearned physitians and diverse and over-rash Apothecaries and other foolish women’ who treat people with such mixtures regardless of their condition, for example, those with ‘Catuche or Catalepsis with a fever; to whom they can give nothing worse, seeing those things do very much hurt and often times bring death it selfe’.

Lavandula stoechas after Gerard

He describes French lavender or sticados also known as stickedoue and sticadoue, which has spiky heads out of which the flowers grow, Gerard calls this ‘Stoechas sive spica hortulana’. Jagged sticados or lavender with the divided leaf he calls ‘Stoechas multisida’. Toothed sticados, with nicked or toothed leaves like a saw for which he gives ‘Stoechas folio serrato’, and naked stoechas have long naked stems on which the spike of flowers grow, this he calls ‘Stoechas sum-mis cauliculus nudis’. He gives clear descriptions of each variety and again these are illustrated, but his Latin names have no real botanical significance.

He continues, ‘These herbs do grow wilde in Spaine, in Languedocke in France, and in the islands called Stoechas over against Manilla, we have them in our gardens and keep them with great diligence from the injurie of the cold’, in other words considered very tender. Gerard cites Dioscorides and Galen and gives the names in Latin (stoechas), High Dutch (stichas kraut), Spanish (thomani and cantuesso) and in English (French lavender, steckado, stickadoue, cassidonie, and by some simple people cast me down).

For medicinal use he cites Dioscorides as teaching that a decoction of French lavender helps diseases of the chest, and is with good success mixed with counter poisons. The later physicians are not named but cited as writing that the flowers are ‘most effectual against paines in the head, and all diseases proceeding from cold causes, and therefore they be mixed in all compositions which are made against head-ache of long continuance, the Apoplexie, the Falling Sickness, and such like diseases’.

Lastly, Gerard states that the ‘decoction of the husks and floures drunk, openeth the stoppings of the liver, the lungs, the milt (melts), the mother (womb), the bladder and in one word all other inward parts, cleansing and driving forth all evill and corrupt humours, and provoking urine’.

A summary of uses suggested by Gerard

Lavandula vera was used to treat catalepsie (?), megrims (migraines), epilepsy, fainting and panting and passions of the heart (the latter may be panic attacks or palpitations and heart problems). He also includes giddiness, and palsy (Parkinson’s etc.), and lastly a conserve of lavender as being good for all these diseases.

Lavandula stoechas he recommends as good for diseases of the chest (lungs), in counter poisons (theriac and hiera picra), pains in the head, diseases of cold cause and in compositions (compounds) for headaches of long history. Also for apoplexy, epilepsy and similar diseases and lastly a decoction to open all internal organs and provoke urine.

Shakespeare (1564–1616)

He mentioned lavender only once, although it was grown in herb gardens, especially knot gardens. It was probably not a common garden plant in his time, though mentioned by Spencer as ‘the lavender still gray’ and by Gerard as growing in his garden and the King’s. Two centuries later, Leyel recommended ‘a tissane or even a spray of lavender to cure nervous headaches, especially if worn under the hats of harvesters’!.

John Parkinson

Herbal Apothecary to King James I (1603–25) and author of the ‘Theater of Plants and Herball’ and ‘The Garden of Plants’, he wrote that lavender was useful for the senses and should be used for scenting linen, clothes, gloves, leather and also that dried flowers used to soak up moisture in a cold brain. He says of ‘Sage and lavender, both the purple and the rare white (there is a kinde herof that beareth white flowers and somewhat broader leaves, but it is very rare and seene in but a few places with us, because it is more tender and will not so well endure in our cold winters)’. He continues to say that it is put in bathes, ointment and things for cold causes. The seed is much used for worms (back to Hildegard again, but this time the seed), he also recommends it for pains of the head and brain.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616–54)

He called himself an astrological doctor, physician who was trained as an apothecary and he proclaimed that lavender ‘was owned by Mercury, and carries his effects very potently’. ‘Lavender is of special good use for all the grief’s and pains of the head and brain that proceed from a cold cause, as the apoplexy, falling sickness, dropsy, sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies and faintings’. ‘It strengthens the stomach and frees the liver and spleen from obstructions, provokes women’s courses and expels the dead child and after birth’. So far he has repeated what was said by Gerard, but has added the mysterious sluggish malady and cramps and an improbable faith in Lavender’s ability to expel the dead child and afterbirth from the mother’s body. The same words are used for pennyroyal, considered to be an abortifacient, and this is perhaps the only reference to an abortifacient quality attached to lavender.

The flowers of lavender steeped in wine, helps them to make water that are stopped, or are troubled with the wind and colic, if the place be bathed therewith. A decoction made with the flowers of lavender, hore-hound, fennel and asparagus root, and a little cinnamon, is very profitable used to help the falling sickness, and the giddiness or turning of the brain: to gargle the mouth with the decoction thereof is good against the toothache.’ The theme of falling sickness continues but here we are moving away form Hildegard and Gerard: Culpeper is advocating its use in wind, colic, and toothache.

He returns to the plot however and says that ‘Two spoonsful of the distilled water of the flowers taken, helps them that have lost their voice, as also the tremblings and passions of the heart, and the faintings and swoonings, not only being drunk but applied to the temples or nostrils to be smelled unto’, now we have returned to almost exactly what Gerard said, with a dash of Hildegard.

Oil of spike

Culpeper particularly warned against ‘The chemical oil (essential oil) drawn from lavender, usually called oil of spike, is of so fierce and piercing a quality that it is cautiously to be used. Some few drops being sufficient to be given with other things, for inward or outward griefs (troubles)’. Finally, he says that ‘it is not safe to use it where the body is replete with blood and humours, because of the hot and subtle spirits wherewith it is possessed’.

He repeats all this information in his ‘the English Physician and Family Dispensatory’ in a briefer format. Under ‘Simple Waters Distilled’ he cites Lavender, and under ‘Compounds, Spirit and Compound Distilled Waters’ he warns ‘Let all young people forbear them whilst they are in health, for their blood is usually hot enough without them’ and again ‘ … not to be meddled with by people of hot constitutions, when they are in health… If they drink of them moderately now and then for recreation … they may do them good’, we must remember that a great debate had already begun a hundred years after spirits of alcohol had become commonplace as to its use in medicine and recreationally

He then gives a compound spirit of lavender ascribed to Matthias:

Take of Lavender flowers one gallon, to which pour three gallons of the best Spirits of Wine (Aqua Vitae), let them stand together in the sun six days, then distil them with an Alembick with this refrigeratory: Take flowers of Sage, Rosemary and Bettony of each a handful. The flowers of Borage, Bugloss, Lilies of the Valley and Cowslips of each two handfuls. Let the flowers be infused in one gallon of the best spirits of wine. And mingled with the forgoing Spirit of Lavender flowers, adding the leaves of Bawm (Melissa), Feather-few (Feverfew), and Orange tree freshly gathered. The flowers of Stoechas (the other type of Lavender) and Orange tree, May berries (Hawthorn), of each one ounce. After convenient digestion distil it again, after which add Citron pills the outward bark, Peony seed husked, of each six drams, Cinnamon, Mace, Nutmegs, Cardamoms, Cubebs, and Yellow Saunders of each half an ounce. Wood of Aloes one dram, the best Jujubes the stones being taken out half a pound; digest them six weeks, then strain it and filter, and add to it prepared Pearls two drams, Emeralds prepared a scruple, Ambergrease, Musk, Saffron of each half a scruple, Red Roses dryed, Red Saunders of each half an ounce yellow saunders, Citron pills dryed, of each one dram. Let the species being tyed up in a rag be hung into the afore mentioned spirit.

Culpeper then gives a list of complaints as to why the College of Physicians has not clarified this recipe, making clear that he realises the difficulties in getting fresh orange leaves and flowers, and borage, bugloss and cowslips flowering together and thus fresh. The very lengthy list of ingredients including tiny amounts of precious stones and pearls is a common format for physicians of the late sixteenth century.

He lists the ‘Simple Oils by infusion and Decoction’, but gives neither oil of lavender nor oil of spike lavender, but only oil of nard or spikenard from India (making it clear which he means).

He does however end this chapter with a statement of interest to modern aromatherapists: That most of these oils, if not all of them, are used only externally, is certain’.

And it is certain that they retain the virtues of the simples wherof they are made, therefore the ingenious might help themselves.

(Culpeper, 1653)

Culpeper in summary

Lavender for pains in the head and brain from cold cause, apoplexy, epilepsy, dropsy (Oedema or severe water retention), the sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies and fainting. It is strengthening for the stomach and opening for the liver and spleen. It provokes women’s periods, and expels dead foetuses and afterbirth. Finally, bathing the skin with a decoction of lavender is good for wind and colic, gargling for toothache and for voice loss.

Thomas Palmer (d. 1696)

He was an American physician practising in the harsh world of the newly founded colonies, and he also preached, but not very well. His medical practise was better, but so hard were these times he could not afford a horse to get him around his practise. In 1696 he wrote ‘The Admirable Secrets of Physick and Chyrurgery’, written in New England, giving us a window into the work of a colonial practitioner at the end of the seventeenth century. In Palmer’s world there was little room for unwarranted frills in medicine, despite this many drugs considered essential were transported from the Old World because they were believed to be irreplaceable. Only under ‘Cold Distempers of the Heart’ do we find lavender:

The weakness, slowing and thinnes of the pulse & such a breath know this distemper. The air breathed out appears cold and sometimes the whole body is cold. Medicines that heat the heart are: Balm, Rosemary, Cardus Benedictus (Blessed Thistle), Calamint, Angelica, Rosemary flowers (an ancient favourite), Lavender, Lily of the Valley, Citron seeds, grains of Alchornes (Kermes or Alkermes a scarlet red colouring), Lignum Aloes (Aloes wood), Cinnamon, Cloves, Zeadary (Zedoary), Mace, Nutmegs, Amber, Musk. Of these there are divers compositions, waters & spirits, conserves, syrups, preserves, oyls, species; confections of Alkermes, Treacle & Mithradite, all sorts of Aqua Vitae and electuarys.

Of these only balm, rosemary, blessed thistle, calamint, angelica, lavender and lily of the valley could have been grown in New England, the rest are very expensive Mediterranean or tropical imports.

He also suggests as treatment for palpitations or passion or beating of the heart in addition to medicines: external applications of bags with melissa flowers, lavender, rosin (pine resin), borage, bugloss or white wine and water of musk roses. Under none of the other infirmities does he mention lavender, suggesting that it was probably also an import or difficult to grow.

William Salmon (1644–1713)

A seventeenth century commentator and the writer of a Herbal, he states that lavender was ‘good against the biting of serpents, mad dogs and other venomous creatures (a dramatic way of describing bites), being given inwardly and applied poultice-wise. The spirituous tincture of the dried seeds or leaves, if given prudently, cures the hysterick fits though vehement and of long standing’. And it is ‘abstersive (detergent), aperitive (laxative), astringent, cephalic (for megraine), discursive (dispels), diuretick (stimulates urine), incisive, neurotick (nervine), stom-atick (stomachic), cordial (gentle or used to make a cordial), nephretick (kidney-action), hysterick, alexipharmick (?) and analeptick (?) and antiparalitick (for paralysis), being of very subtil and thin parts.’ He approved it for ‘convulsions, epilepsy’s, palsies, tremblings, vertigoes, lethargies, swoonings, hysteric fits, other diseases of the head, brain, nerves, womb, also bites of mad dogs as well as snake bites’.

He also wrote of Hiera Picra, which is an antidote and cure all with multiple ingredients very similar to Treacle or Theriac made under seal by various cities including London, the origins of which go back the ancient Greeks.

The growing of lavender in history

In the nineteenth century Lavandula vera was considered indigenous to the mountainous regions of the countries bordering the western half of the Mediterranean basin. Occurring in Eastern Spain, Southern France (extending Northward to Lyons and Dauphiny), Upper Italy, Corsica, Calabria and Northern Africa. In cultivation it grows very well in the open air throughout the greater part of Germany and as far North as Norway. Dried lavender flowers were the object of some trade in the South of Europe. Lavender and orange flowers were exported form France in 1870 to the extent of 110,958 kg (244,741 lbs), chiefly to the Barbary states (N. Africa), Turkey and America. There is no data given for the amount of volatile lavender oil imported into England, where it was much used as a perfume and was considered to have stimulant properties.

Mrs Grieve (1937)

Lavandula vera

Describing English lavender (Lavandula vera), she clarifies the Lavandula officinalis of the sixteenth century botanists as being two distinct plants, known and named by the French botanist Jordan as lavender of dauphine (L. delphinesis) and L. fragrans from which the French distil lavender oil.

Lavandula spica

She continues by describing spike lavender (Lavandula spica DC or latifolia Vill.) which also grows in the mountainous districts of France, the flowers which yield three times as much essential oil, but of a second rate quality, less fragrant than that of true lavender. It is called by Parkinson the lesser or minor lavender and by some ‘Nardus Italica’ (some believing it is the spikenard of the bible). Grieves continues by explaining that Lavandula spica and L. fragrans often form hybrids known as bastard lavender, care having to be taken that neither the ‘bastard’ nor the spike lavender are among the true lavender during distillation as both will injure the quality of the essential oil. White lavender, which is sometimes found in the Alps and is described by Gerard, is probably a form of L. delphinesis.

Lavandula stoechas

Finally, in her description of the varieties of lavender she comes to Lavandula stoechas also known as French lavender, for which Gerard gives four varieties. Mrs Grieves ascribes this kind of lavender the classical Romans and Libyans who used it as a perfume for the bath. In Spain and Portugal in the 1930s it was used to strew the floors of churches and houses on festive occasions. The flowers were used in England medicinally until the middle of the eighteenth century, being called ‘Sticadore’ in has even more ancient pedigree as one of the ingredients of the ‘Vinegar of the Four Thieves’ famous in the Middle Ages. It is generally not used in the distillation of oil, though in France and Spain the country people extract the oil in a simple manner and use it to dress wounds, this is done by hanging the flowers downwards in a closed bottle in the shade. The Arabs use the flowers as an expectorant and anti-spasmodic.

Mrs Grieve ascribes lavender as being formerly used as a condiment and for flavouring ‘dishes to comfort the stomach’, and conserves for the table. She states that it has aromatic, carminative and nervine properties and though largely used in perfumery it was in her day employed as a flavouring agent, in pharmacy to cover the disagreeable odours in ointments and other compounds. Red lavender lozenges were employed as both a mild stimulant and for their agreeable taste.

The essential oil (or a spirit of lavender made from it), however, had much wider applications: according to Grieve it is an admirable restorative, and tonic against faintness, nervous palpitations, weak giddiness, spasms and colic. Its pleasant smell provokes the appetite, it raises the spirits, and dispels flatulence taken on sugar with a dosage of 1–4 drops. She also recommends a few drops in a footbath to relieve fatigue and external application for toothache, neuralgia, sprains and rheumatism; and that it is a powerful stimulant in treating hysteria, palsy and similar disorders of debility and lack of nerve power; quoting Gerard on its external application for this purpose. However, later in her chapter on the subject she says that an infusion of lavender tops made in moderate strength is excellent for headaches from fatigue; ‘an infusion taken too freely, however, will cause griping and colic and lavender oil in too large doses is a narcotic poison and causes death by convulsions’. She quotes Culpeper’s warning regarding the taking of oil of spike (disregarding the difference between oil and an infusion) in support of this statement.

With regard to usage in the 1930s Grieve affirms that oil of lavender could help in some cases of mental depression and delusions, and nervous headaches, if rubbed into the temples; faintness could be cured by compound tincture of lavender (red lavender). This tincture, which contains lavender, rosemary, cinnamon bark, nutmeg and red sandalwood macerated in spirits of wine for seven days, had remained in the British Pharmacopoeia for 250 years and was known as ‘Palsy drops’ in the eighteenth century and when it first appeared, and in the seventeenth century contained over thirty ingredients (very typical of compounds of the period). Statements for its efficacy when first made ‘Official’ included all those ascribed to Hildegard, Gerard and Culpeper for lavender, plus loss of memory, dimness of sight and bareness of women.

To summarise Mrs Grieve’s advice

Lavender oil is of service when used to anoint the temples and forehead for headaches, as an external massage for paralysed limbs (at a time when polio was still widespread). Hot fomentations of lavender in bags, applied hot, will aid the recovery of local pain. Distilled water of lavender is a gargle for hoarseness and loss of voice. The French Academy of Medicine used oil of lavender for swabbing wounds and other antiseptic purposes during the war and the oil has been subsequently used in the treatment of sores, varicose ulcers and burns and scalds. In veterinary practice lavender oil is used in the elimination of lice and other parasites, and finally the oil is increasingly used in the embalming of corpses.

Note on use as antiseptic

The antiseptic power of lavender oil is not regarded as high, as in vitro antimicrobial work by Lis-Balchin et al. (), showed that lavender has relatively low antibacterial activity and that it is very variable, from batch to batch of commercial lavender oil. It would, however, make the septic wound and ward smell somewhat better.