A Historical Perspective
In this time of ‘New Release’ ‘PBR’ and “improved form” plants it is interesting to see the popularity of lavender, one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants. Indeed there are recorded uses of it in the centuries BC. It seems that much of what we have come to appreciate as being of value originated in the areas surrounding the mediteranean. Lavender is one of these niceties. The early records of the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Arabs show regular usage of Lavender. It was used as a medicine, a bathing additive and a body perfume.
The Romans are credited with giving the name Lavender. It is generally believed that the word is a derivation of the latin verb lavare, which means to bathe. The species first described is Lavandula stoechas from the Stoechades Islands (now called Iles de Hyeres). The Greeks and Romans also referred to lavender as Nard, from the latin Nardus italica, after the Syrian town Naarda.
Lavender made its way into the modern history via the French monks around the start of the ninth century. Lavender was seen in many of the garden designs of the European gentry and religous orders. It became the herb of the royals in England when Queen Elizabeth 1 decreed that she should always have a jar of lavender conserve on the royal table and first appeared in English literature during the late fifteenth century. There are dozens of annectdotes of various members of royal households throughout Europe having particular desires for lavenders.
As you would expect of anything that has been used by man for more than two millennia the folklore that has evolved is extensive and can be quite strange. We have compiled a collection of stories from books, articles and anecdotes. A selection of them are;
The Egyptians used lavender at least a thousand years before Christ. They dried them in buried terracotta crocks. The products were then used as an expectorant and antispasmodic. The women also used them to produce oils, water and vinegar which were in turn used as skin ointments and makeup. The priests used the plants as one of the unguents in their mummification rituals, and its scent was still fresh after 3000 years in Tutankhamen’s perfume urns, opened in 1922.
From 60AD, by Discorides [translated by J. Goodyer, 1655]:
“Stoechas grows in the Islands of Galatia over agaisnt Messalia, called Stoechades, from whence also it had its name, is an herb with slender twiggs, having ye haire like tyme, but yet longer leaved, and sharp in ye taste, and somewhat bitterish, but ye decoction of it as the Hyssop is good for ye griefs in ye thorax. It is mingled also profitably with Antidots.”
Then from Richard Surflet, in 1600 speaking of Lavender dentata:
“The drie, stonie and sunnie shining place is very fir for lavender. It is of sweet smell, and very good when it is dried to put amongst linens and woollen clothes, impairing of its sweetness unto then, keeping them from vermin.
It is very excellent to comfort weake and wearied sinews, or otherwise ill affected through some cold cause: and by reason here of baths and fomentations made of lavender for palsies, convulsions, apoplexies, and other such like affects, are very soveraigne: the flowers with cinnamome, nutmeg, and cloves doe heale the beating of the hart: the distilled water of the flowers, taken in quantitie of two spoonfuls, restoreth the lost speech, healeth the swounings and disease of the hart: the conserve and distilled water thereof doe the like: the vile drieth up rheums .....”
It was the Romans who really found uses for this versatile plant:
An aromatic in their bathing rituals,
Burned as a room purifier to ward off the plague
Rubbed into the hair to deter lice
Filled special brackets carved in their bedposts to keep bedbugs at bay.
The armies used lavender in their first aid kits and were probably responsible for importing lavender into Britain.
As an insect repellent.
Burnt in honor of their gods.
During the centuries since it has also been used for many abstract purposes:
“Our Lady’s Candlestick”; to supposedly repel the devil and bound into the shape of a cross and suspended above doorways as a talisman to ward off witches.
As a test for chastity, it was suposed to wither in the hands of the impure.
Placed in a man’s right shoe to ensure fidelity.
Baked with caraway into small cakes by seamen’s wives to ensure their fidelity.
Made into a vinegar and used by robbers to protect themselves from the plague whilst robbing their helpless victims. This gave rise to the name ‘Vinegar of the four thieves’.
In 1826 a french scientist managed to fix an image chemically by employing bitumen of Judea (a type of asphalt) which changes its solubility in lavender oil depending on its exposure to light. An early Kodak was built.
Although current uses of lavender are a little less mystical, they are still as varied. We are more concerned with ist use in the garden. It is probably the versatility of this delightful garden plant that keeps it so popular. The plant itself can be used as a specimen plant, border plant, hedging, topiary and a source of cut flower. Commercially it is used as a cut flower, for pot pourri, as a dried flower and for its oil. The deheaded stalks even make excellent fire starters.
The world wide market for oil is growing rapidly and it is quite conceivable that Australia will become a major player in the global production of this aromatic essential oil. We are already an exporter of top quality grade one oil and can only increase on this start.
There has been some extensive research into the benfits of the oil and its contituent components. These include using it in airconditioning systems to help relax hospital patients, as an insecticide, as a heat rub and many more. Charles Sturt University did some investigation into the folklore uses and found m,any of them had a factual basis.