Being an inhabitant almost in every garden, it is so well known, that it needs no description. Nicolas Culpeper, Complete Herbal, 1653
With its familiar halo of periwinkle blossoms rising above a grey-green mound of fine-leaved foliage, lavender is one of the most iconic plants of aromatherapy. It has been a beloved aromatic herb for centuries.
A Sprig of Botany
Lavender belongs to the Lamiaceae family. The most frequently used lavender in aromatherapy and herbalism is Lavandula angustifolia, but there are 47 species in the Lavandula genus and a myriad of lavender cultivars.
Prominent lavender species and their common names:
· also referred to as Lavandula officinalis or Lavandula vera
· true lavender, English lavender, common lavender, narrow-leaved lavender
· also referred to as Lavandula spica
· spike lavender, Portuguese lavender, broad-leaved lavender, aspic
· maritime lavender, sea lavender, butterfly lavender, bract lavender, topped lavender, French lavender, Spanish lavender, Arabian lavender
Lavandula x intermedia
· also referred to as Lavandula x fragrans; it is a hybrid between Lavandula angustifolia and Lavandula latifolia
· lavandin, hybrid lavender, Dutch lavender
Lavender is an herb from the dry and rocky soils of the sunny lands of the Mediterranean and northeastern Africa. It is cultivated worldwide and thrives in poor, well-drained soil with plenty of sunshine. It prefers warm, dry conditions, and certain lavenders can withstand cold winters. Lavender does not do well in very moist or humid environments.
There are variations between the many lavenders, but generally, the plant grows as a small shrub, three to four feet (1 meter) in height, with narrow evergreen leaves arranged in opposite pairs along the stems. It produces long, leafless flower spikes with miniature tubular blossoms that can range in color from shades of pink to blue to purple. The seeds are tiny and black. The entire plant is aromatic, with the flowers containing the most essence and thus being the part of the plant distilled for the essential oil.
A Leaf Through History
“Lavender is one of many Mediterranean plants that has seen widespread use from earliest times. Its fine floral, refreshing fragrance, versatile therapeutic actions, and multi-purpose usefulness in first-aid situations have always made it a popular choice.” Peter Holmes, Aromatica, Vol. 1
Lavender has an astonishingly extensive array of traditional uses!
(Note to readers: it is not always detailed or clear which species of lavender – angustifolia, latifolia, or stoechas – was used for certain remedies or applications; it has been specified when possible.)
The name lavender is derived from the Latin lavare, meaning “to wash,” which arose from the ancient Romans’ common practice of adding spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) or maritime lavender (Lavandula stoechas) to their bath water for its aroma and restorative properties.
Alternately, some propose that the name comes from the Latin words livere or lividus, meaning ‘bluish color,’ in reference to the hue of the blossoms.
In ancient Egypt, lavender was used as a perfume and an ingredient in incense. The Arabs, Greeks, and Romans used the herb to calm indigestion, headaches, sore throats, and heal wounds. The Greek physician Galen advised using lavender as an antidote for poisons and venomous bites. One of the common names for Lavandula latifolia, ‘aspic,’ is said to come from the name of the asp, a venomous Egyptian snake, because it was used to remedy its bites. Lavender was still employed this way centuries later, and 18th-century English doctor William Salmon wrote, “it is also good against the bitings of serpents, mad-dogs, and other venomous creature, being given inwardly and applied poultice-wise to the parts wounded.”
Beyond bites, lavender is historically a famed analgesic and healer. Herbalist Rosemary Gladstar states, “It is legendary as an herbal antiseptic and is used to disinfect and heal scrapes, wounds, and burns.” As early as the first century CE, the Greek physician Dioscorides documented lavender’s ability to clean wounds. According to Mrs. Grieves in her Modern Herbal (1931), the country people of France and Spain had a tradition of hanging Lavandula stoechas flowers downwards in a closed bottle in the sunshine as a simple way to extract an oil that was then used for treating injuries, and “fomentations with Lavender in bags applied hot, will speedily relieve local pains.” One part lavender oil (likely Lavandula latifolia) mixed with three parts spirit of turpentine or spirit of wine was the recipe for Oleum Spicae, a once popular remedy for old sprains and stiff joints. The plant gained modern recognition for its antiseptic properties in the early twentieth century through René-Maurice Gattefossé’s documentation of his application of the essential oil to stop the gaseous gangrene developing on his hands after they were severely burned and because of investigations into lavender’s use to disinfect wounds during the World Wars.
Lavender has long been known to protect against infection and pests. The cut stems were strewn on the floors of castles to repel insects and for the antiseptic and deodorant properties. Bunches of lavender were left to smolder in sickrooms to fumigate them. Dried lavender flowers were placed among linens to deter moths and freshen them. The herb was usually one of the ingredients of the “Four Thieves’ Vinegar,” offering protection from medieval Europe's deadly plagues. 12th-century German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen advised using lavender to treat lice and fleas. In the early 20th century, veterinary practices often employed lavender oil to kill lice and other parasites on animals.
The herb was also valued for its therapeutic effect on the brain and nervous system. Herbalist John Parkinson (1640) wrote that lavender was “especially good use for all griefes and paines of the head and brain.” John Gerard (1597) advised, “It profiteth them much that have the palsy if they be washed with the distilled water from Lavender flowers or are annointed with the oil made from the flowers and olive oil.” Nicolas Culpeper shares in his Complete Herbal (1653) that a decoction made with lavender flowers (surmised to be Lavandula latifolia) and other herbs could treat the falling sickness (epilepsy). A tea of lavender tops, or lavender water applied to the temples, was recommended to relieve headaches from fatigue or exhaustion. Lavender was a typical remedy for hysterics and faintness and a common ingredient in smelling salts.
Additionally, lavender (most likely Lavandula angustifolia) was often used for its sedative effects. Hildegard von Bingen advised a bath of steeped lavender to promote rest, and King Charles VI of France (1380-1422) insisted that his pillow always contained lavender so that he would sleep well. According to Mrs. Grieves, “it is said on good authority that the lions and tigers in our Zoological Gardens are powerfully affected by the scent of Lavender Water, and will become docile under its influence.” (A Modern Herbal, 1931)
Lavender was also employed to calm coughing and relieve congestion, and a gargle of lavender water was an old remedy for hoarseness or loss of voice. The herb was a helpful antispasmodic for menstrual cramps and indigestion and has long been included in foods and beverages for its ability to comfort the stomach.
Fronds of Folklore
There was a Roman superstition that the venomous asp made its home among lavender bushes; thus, the plant had to be cautiously approached.
Conversely, since ancient times, lavender was believed to protect from evil and was often hung from doorways to guard against malevolent spirits. In Tuscany, wearing a sprig of lavender was thought to protect one from the evil eye.
Some accounts say that ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra wore lavender perfume as a seductive fragrance, and in medieval Europe, lavender was considered an herb of love and an aphrodisiac. It was also believed to ensure faithfulness and contentment in a marriage.
Lavender is under the dominion of the planet Mercury according to Culpeper, who wrote, “Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently.” It is also associated with the astrological sign of Virgo and the element of air, and in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Lavandula angustifolia has a strong affinity with the water element.
Lavender and its blossoms symbolize purity, cleanliness, devotion, serenity, health, and nobility. The purple color of the flowers is associated with the crown chakra, higher purpose, and spiritual connectivity. Valerie Ann Worwood elegantly describes it: “Lavender embodies the warm, protective love of Mother Earth. It is caring, cherishing, and nurturing, and energetically very active in the auric field, closest to the body, incorporating heavenly energies into the physical with great efficiency.” (The Fragrant Heavens, 1999)
Common yet extraordinary, lavender is an herb that holds a trove of aromatic stories, secrets, remedies, and blessings amongst its fragrant stems.
Lavender…A floral, sweet scent; instantly recognizable…If an azure summer sky at four p.m. had a smell, this would be it. Suzanne Catty, Hydrosols, The Next Aromatherapy