History of usage of Lavandula species: transcriptions of texts in historical section

Abbess Hildegard

When a person with palsy (possibly Parkinson’s disease) is afflicted they should take galangale (a rhizome with similar properties to ginger), with half as much nutmeg (50 per cent of the amount of galangale), and half as much of spike lavender as nutmeg, plus an equal amount of githrut (probably gith or black cumin) and lovage. To these he should add equal weights (amounts) of female fern and saxifrage (these two together should be equal to the five precious ingredients). Pulverise these in a pestle and mortar. If the patient is (well) strong, he should eat this powder on bread, if (ill) weak he should eat an electuary (soft pill made with honey) made from it.

So today we might say, for example, the five precious ingredients: 100 gms of galangale; 50 gms of nutmeg; 25 gms spike lavender; 12.5 gms each of githrut and lovage. To this add: 100 gms each of female fern and saxifrage.

The second recipe quoted is easier to understand, but less obviously effective.

Lavender is hot and dry (referring to its properties under the Galenic system of medicine), having very little moisture (it is indeed a dry herb). It is not pleasant to eat, but does have a strong smell. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die (dubious, but this may mean fumigation with lavender). Its odour clears the eyes, since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It certainly has an aroma that ranks in nature among the strongest of the pleasing smells, and the effectiveness of the most bitter plants (rue and wormwood), she is saying here that it is as effective as these. As to its curbing evil things and terrifying malign spirits we can make no comment.

Hildegard’s third recipe is for congestion of the lungs: to cook spike lavender with wine, or if one has no wine, with honey and water. Cool it often (in a case) and it will soften hardness of the liver, and congestion of the lungs. Wine of lavender is a science pure and clear (a true remedy).

John Gerard

We grow a smaller kind of lavender in our English gardens, much smaller than other varieties, the flowers are of a deeper purple and grow smaller shorter heads with a more pleasant smell. The leaves are smaller and whiter than ordinary lavender. This grows in his Majesties Private Garden at Whitehall. This variety is called simply spike, and sometimes spike lavender and by distillation an oil is made what is vulgarly (by common people) called oile of spike or oleum spicae. In Spain, and Languedoc in Southern France, most of the mountains and scrub fields are covered with this lavender. In cold countries we plant it in our gardens.

On Lavandula vera

Lavender (vera) is hot and dry in the third degree, and of thin substance, consisting mainly of airy and spiritual parts (referring also to its properties under Galen’s system, stating that lavender is a hot dry, airy plant, with the relevant parts growing above the ground).

It is good for diseases of the head, distilled lavender water inhaled, or for bathing the temples and forehead is good for catalepsie (no translation), mild migraines, for those who have epilepsy and those that faint a lot. The flowers of lavender picked from the heads, I mean the blue part not the husk, mixed with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, is made into a powder and given as a drink in distilled lavender water. This helps palpitations and passions of the heart (possibly panic attacks or more probably heart disease) and is excellent for giddiness and palsy (the shakes, possibly Parkinson’s disease).

Gerard also cautions against taking lavender ‘when there is an abundance of humours’, in other words when the body is out of its humoural balance. He advises against taking lavender and other herbs, seeds and spices in distilled wine or in other words brandy. This he states will make disease greater, and thus put a sick man in danger. He also suggests that unqualified doctors, over keen apothecaries and foolish women who treat people with these mixtures without regard to their diseases are doing more harm than good and indeed often do much harm, even bringing on death itself.

Gerard on Lavandula stoechas or French lavender

He describes it in various terms common at the time (sticados, stickedoue and sticadoue and its names in European languages). He gives subspecies as jagged sticados or ‘Stoechas multisida’, toothed stoechas or ‘Stoechas folio serrato’ and naked stoechas which he calls ‘Stoechas summis cauliculus nudis’. These are his Latin names and have no botanical significance. He describes their growing wild in Spain, Southern France and the island near Manilla called Stoechas, stating that they were grown in English gardens, great care being taken to protect them from frost damage.

French lavender he says is effective against pains in the head and all diseases, which result from cold cause. It can therefore be mixed in medicines for headaches, which have persisted for some time, apoplexy, epilepsy and similar diseases.

He concludes by recommending that drinking a decoction of the flowers and husks will open stopping or obstructions of the liver, lungs, melts, womb and bladder. In other words all the internal organs, cleaning and driving out all unpleasant matter and provoking urine. Bearing in mind that it was common practice to add large numbers of drugs to a decoction or compound in Gerard’s day. He also recommends its use in counter poisons or antidotes, such as theriac or treacle and hiera picra, which were made in various places around Europe, under strict license and were often included in treatments where poison or what we would call septicaemia were a risk.

Nicolas Culpeper

Culpeper says that lavender (vera) is particularly good for all illnesses and pain of the head and brain with cold causes. Such as apoplexy, epilepsy, dropsy (swelling of the limbs caused by a failing heart), the sluggish malady, cramps, fits, shakes and fainting. He continues that it strengthens the stomach, opens obstructions of the liver and spleen, provokes menses of women, and expels both a stillborn child and afterbirth (the only reference to lavender as an abortifacient).

For those who have trouble passing urine he suggest lavender flowers steeped in wine, saying that this is also good for wind and colic if the stomach is bathed with the decoction. For epilepsy and giddiness he suggests a decoction of lavender flowers, hore-hound, fennel, asparagus root and a little cinnamon and adds that if one has toothache this decoction is good as a gargle.

He ends his discussion of Lavandula vera by suggesting two spoonfuls of distilled water of lavender flowers, helps those who have lost their voice, also those with tremblings and passions of the heart and those who faint. This cannot only be drunk but also applied to the temples or the nostrils.

Culpeper on spike lavender

In Culpeper’s day the art of distilling essential oils was being perfected, a new process, they were known as chemical oils. He warns against the use of the chemical oil drawn from spike lavender, called ‘Oil of Spike’ as being so fierce and piercing in its qualities that it must be used cautiously. Just a few drops are sufficient, given with other things, for internal and external troubles. Lastly, he warns that the oil of spike is not safe to use when the body is full of illnesses (blood and tumours) because it is too heating.

Elsewhere he warns young people who are in good health from taking distillates of single plants and against distillates of compounds and spirits. Saying that these are not to be meddled with by those of hot constitutions (the young) when they are healthy, for their blood is hot enough without them. If they drink them in moderation occasionally for recreation, when in good health, that may do them some good.

Culpeper then gives a complex recipe for compound spirit of lavender according to Matthias: Take one gallon of lavender flowers, to which add three gallons of the best brandy (spirits of wine) and leave to stand in the sun for six days. Then distil them in an alembic adding the following: flowers of sage, rosemary and bettony (a handful each), flowers of borage, bugloss, lilies of the valley and cowslips (two handfuls of each). Let these flowers infuse in one gallon of the best brandy and mix them with the above spirit of lavender flowers, adding melissa leaves, feverfew, and orange flowers freshly gathered. The flowers of lavender stoechas, orange and hawthorn add (of each one-ounce). Leave it to stand (convenient digestion) and distil again, after which add lemon peel and husked Peony seed (six drams each). Then add cinnamon, mace, nutmegs, cardamoms, cubebs, and yellow sandalwood (half an ounce each), aloes wood (one dram) and half a pound of the best jujubes with the stones taken out. Leave it to stand (digest) for six weeks, then strain and filter it, adding two drams of prepared pearls, a scruple of prepared emeralds, half a scruple of ambergris, musk, and saffron, half an ounce of dried red roses and half an ounce of red sandalwood, and a dram each of lemon peel and yellow sandalwood. Let the species (the last sets of ingredients) be tied up in a piece of cloth and suspended in the spirits. Culpeper then points out that this recipe is impossible to follow. As the flowers required never flower at the same time, and thus can never be gathered fresh. The addition of precious stones and animal secretions to medicines is a common method of the time (especially if the patient was wealthy).

Thomas Palmer

Recommends lavender for the treatment of ‘cold distempers of the heart’ where the pulse is weak, slow and thin, the breath is cold and sometimes the whole body is cold. He includes lavender in a list of plants that are helpful to this condition made up into the form of distilled waters and spirits, conserves, syrups, oils, compounds, soft pills made with honey and all sorts of aqua vitae.

William Salmon

Recommends lavender for snakebite, the bites of mad dogs and other poisonous creatures, applied internally and as poultices. A spirit-based tincture of the dried seeds or leaves, given prudently, cures hysterical fits of long standing. This tincture is also detergent, laxative, astringent, good for migraine, dispels, stimulates urine, is nervine, stomachic, used to make cordial, good for the kidneys, and for paralysis. He approved of it for fits, epilepsy, the shakes, vertigo, lethargy, fainting, hysteric fits etc.

It seems that not only does the number of individual plants used in a compound increase as the centuries pass, but the number of diseases that each plant cures also increases.