The term lavender is considered to come from the Latin ’lavando’ part of the verb ’lavare’ to bathe, the Romans having used many plants to perfume their baths. The Greeks and Romans also referred to lavender as nard, from the Latin Nardus Italica, after the Syrian town Naarda. This was the beginning of much confusion as to which plant was being referred to in classical and medieval times. Lavandula is obvious, however nard and spike can refer to spike lavender or to spikenard (a plant imported from India during the Middle Ages and equally popular then for its aromatic properties). Despite much learned investigation into the identification of lavender in the writings of classical authors; it has remained impossible to unquestionably identify Lavandula vera or Lavandula spica. Lavandula stoechas is, however, distinctly referred to by both Dioscorides and Pliny.
An alternative, but less likely explanation from Victorian times connected the name to the Latin ’livere’ meaning to be livid or bluish.
Main functions of lavender in the past
There is a mystery surrounding the actual appearance or reappearance of lavender in Britain after Roman times. The Huguenots have been suggested as possibly bringing it over from France after 1685, however, a poem written by Master Jon Gardener in 1440 suggests that lavender was already growing in Britain by then as do many other references to its medical usage. Many rhymes pertaining to lavender were printed and recited around 1672–85, including the children’s rhyme: ‘lavender green, lavender blue, I shall be king and you shall be queen’, (with and without ‘diddle-diddle’), suggesting that lavender was well established for centuries.
From earliest times lavender has been associated with cleanliness and purity, since antiquity bathing was included in the Regimen Sanitatis or writings on the care of the body. Medical, literary and ecclesiastical documents all reveal that bathing played a significant part in medieval life. By the twelfth century there were baths (very large wooden tubs) in the houses of the richer classes, in monasteries, and public baths in towns and villages often with rooms set aside for resting after therapy (Berger, 1999). Bath houses were places for socialisation and intimacy, as we find from the concerns in ecclesiastical quarters, Burchard of Worms (1008–12) in ():
Hast thou washed thyself in the bath with thy wife and other women and seen them nude, as they thee? If thou hast, thou should fast for three days on bread and water.
The type of water best used in a bath was specified, hard or soft, river, rain or snow and should the patient take a steam bath or a water bath, for which Hildegard of Bingen gives much detail regarding thermal springs. For the former, plant extracts were thrown on heated stones in a confined environment, for the latter, if they were medicinal plant materials, they were added to the water.
The Liber Niger or Black Book of Edward VI (1547–53), gives a reference to a lavender man’ authorised to obtain from the spicery enough soap for the King’s personal washing.
Lavender was boiled in water and this was used for washing clothes. Shirts and sheets smelling of lavender were recognised as especially clean and thus those hospitals (some of which were hotels for travellers) and inns with linen smelling of lavender and also pots of lavender on the sills, were frequented in preference to others. Lavender was also associated with bridal beds.
Occult properties have also been associated with lavender, as it was among the mint and Feverfew, which were consecrated to the patronesses of witches and sorcerers namely Hecate (goddess of the infernal regions) and her daughters Medea and Circe.
Use of different Lavandula species
Spike lavender oil
Spike lavender was said by some authors to have been mainly used in veterinary practice, as a prophylactic in cases of impending paralysis. It was too camphoraceous and never worth more than one-fifth of true lavender oil, but Gerard (1633) lists its uses as the main medicinal lavender. Spike oil was also used in the manufacture of fine varnishes and lacquers with oil of turpentine and used for painting on porcelain. Its one medicinal value was for promotion of hair growth.
Lavandula stoechas L.
Used by Muslim physicians who consider it to be ‘cephalic (tonic), resolvent, deobstruent, and carminative’ and prescribe it in ‘chest infections and for expelling bilous and phlegmatic humours’. He suggests that the vernacular ‘Ustukhuddus’ come from the Roman ‘satukhas’. It appears to be the ‘Astadus’ or ‘Astiqus’ of Ibn Sina. Other folk-medicinal Indian writers have accredited Lavandula stoechas with cephalic virtues and called it the ‘broom of the brain’ because it sweeps away all phlegmatic impurities, removes obstructions, strengthens its powers of expelling waste crudities and clarifies intellect’.
External uses of lavender oil
It was rubbed externally for stimulating paralysed limbs, mixed with three-fourth spirits of turpentine it gave the Oleum spicae, used to massage stiff joints and cure sprains. Local pains were relieved by bags of lavender applied hot. Lavender oil was used in veterinary practice to kill lice and other parasites. It was also used as a vermifuge. The dried flowers were still used for perfuming of linen and keeping insects at bay. Apparently, in the United States, lavender was used to keep away mosquitoes, proof of the effectiveness of this however has not been forthcoming.
Lavender oil was also used in embalming corpses, as early as Tudor times!
Distillation of lavender
Distillation is thought to have originally occurred before the sixteenth century and there is some evidence to suggest that it was already used in ancient times (perhaps even Ancient Egyptian times) and was practised by the Chinese and Arabic nations 4,000–5,000 years ago. The first alembic stills were crudely represented in a few drawings from the pre-Christian period, and distillation was subsequently re-introduced to Europe around the fourteenth century due to the influence of Arabian physicians, and became all the rage in the fifteenth century. There is an early account of how Louis XIV (or his courtiers) had noticed that the rose petals liberally sprinkled on top of the water channels and in fountains would form an oily substance on top of the water. However, there was no correlation at that time between chemical oils (essential oils) or perfumes and the floating oil. In the Middle Ages, perfumes, including lavender extracts, were not accepted by the church and authorities and women wearing such products were condemned as whores by ecclesiasticals. It was acceptable for men to wear these ‘dreadful odours’ and there is evidence that perfumes were brought back form the crusades and were available to their wives, but mostly to be used to scent chamber and bed linen.
Sixteenth century England: distillation takes off
Lavender oil was first distilled in conjunction with other herbs and spices in the Still rooms of sixteenth century England. Lavender was a component of numerous distillation recipes and was also used as a medicine in extracts, but was not distilled alone. The herbs and spices were mixed with wine before distillation and hence the resulting distillate had a very strong alcoholic composition. This fact suggests that many of the recipes were actually used as alcoholic beverages in the same tradition as the numerous scented and flavoured alcoholic beverages produced in Europe mainly by monks in their many monasteries, resulting in the well-known Benedictine beverages.
In Elizabethan times, perfumes consisted of numerous Damask waters, which also included orris, the animalistic musk, civet and castoreum as well as numerous herbs and spices (like cloves or cinnamon).
It was in the Victorian times that lavender became one of the three most popular scents, together with rose and violet flowers. The famous Eau de Cologne was based on lavender oil. A recipe from 1834 gives a splendid, if very expensive, cologne:
Bergamot oil 6.2 kg, neroli oil 0.8 kg, lavender oil 1.2 kg, lemon oil 3.1 kg, clove oil 1.6 kg, rosemary oil 0.8 kg, with alcohol 90° added to make up to 100 l.
Yardley, best known for its lavender products, first became active under Charles I, before the Great Fire of London, and rose to prominence as the House of Yardley in 1770. After a period of bad business in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, advertising in the 1930s made perfumery, as well as Yardley, popular once again.
Lavender and lavender oil today
Nowadays, lavender is used mainly as the essential oil in manufactured products like cosmetics, perfumes, soaps etc, but there has been a general reversion to the use of the dried lavender plant itself in the homespun industry of making products like herbal pillows and lavender bags.
Spike lavender is included in some veterinary shampoos and other products as an insect repellent especially for fleas. Lavender, usually the synthetic type, is used in household products like furniture polish, general cleaners, odour-repellent sprays. It is also used in cooking by some enthusiasts and in the Food Industry.
Uses in aromatherapy as a cure for mind and body
Nowadays, lavender oil has once again being put into the front-line as a cure-all for mind, body and spirit and used by aromatherapists for every possible malady, irrespective of the fact that the few clinical trials have not offered satisfactory evidence of efficacy. Second, many people these days actually hate the smell of lavender and therefore any possible psychological effect could be completely over-ruled by their dislike of the odour.
Selections from the book: “Lavender: The genus Lavandula”. Edited by Maria Lis-Balchin. Series “Medicinal and aromatic plants – industrial profiles”. 2002.