The word lavender comes from the Latin word lavare, which means to wash. The Greeks referred to it as Nardus after the city of Naardus in Syria. People in India called it spikenard, which referred to the shape of its flowers.
Ancient Romans recognized lavender for its healing and antiseptic qualities, for its usefulness in deterring insects, and used it in washing. The first written record of the healing uses of lavender appears to be that of the Greek military physician Dioscorides in 77 AD. Dioscordes, a Greek military physician under the Roman Emperor, Nero, collected medicinal plants from around the Mediterranean. He described these plants and provided information about their medical uses in a 5-volume work entitled De Materia Medica. Lavender, he noted, when taken internally relieved indigestion, headaches and sore throats. Externally, lavender could be used to clean wounds and burns or treat skin ailments. Roman soldiers took lavender on campaigns with them to dress war wounds. Lavender was strewn on the floor to sweeten the air, fumigate sick rooms and as incense for religious ceremonies.
Pliny the Elder, a Greek writer and encyclopedist, noted its benefits in helping those with menstrual problems, upset stomachs, kidney disorders, jaundice, dropsy and treating insect bites. Romans, who perfumed themselves lavishly, used the aromatic oils to perfume their hair, their bodies, their clothes, their bed, their baths, their military flags, and the walls of their houses. One of their most famous scented oils was nardinum, which included lavender. Women hung lavender next to their beds to incite the passions.
The De Materia Medica served as the foundation for Arab physicians who read Syrian and Old Persian translations. The Arabs dominated the Mediterranean culture around the seventh century AD. The brought their medicine to Spain where it spread to the rest of Europe. Their greatest known physician, Abu Ali Sina, known as Avicenna (-980AD – 1037AD) mentioned the healing uses of lavender. Some varieties of lavender where first thought to have been domesticated in Arabia.
Lavender was little used in the Dark Ages except by monks and nuns. Monasteries preserved the knowledge of herbal lore in their physics gardens. They copied ancient manuscripts and recorded the medicinal effects of various plants. Under an edict of the Holy Roman Empire in 812 AD, they were charged with growing vegetables, medicinal plants, flowers and trees. Lavender was one of the herbs listed as being grown at Merton Abbey which was to become the centre of lavender production in England - Mitcham. Lavender is first mentioned in 1301 in the records of Merton Priory as being used to raise money for King Edward I.
Lavender experienced a renaissance in Tudor England. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, lavender moved to domestic gardens. The ladies of the manor used lavender for all kinds of things. It was placed among linens, sewn into sweet bags, used to freshen the air, and mixed with beeswax to make furniture polish. Traditionally it was planted near the laundry room and linens and clothing were laid over the plants to dry while absorbing the fresh odour of lavender. It was also useful in repelling insects.
Queen Elisabeth, who loved lavender, used it in tea to treat her frequent migraines and as a perfume. (Lavender is one of the oldest perfumes used in England.) She encouraged the development of lavender farms. Henrietta Marie, wife of King Charles I, who brought cosmetics to the English court, used lavender in perfumed soaps, potpourris, and water for washing and bathing.
King Charles VI of France had his seat cushions stuffed with lavender. In the twelfth century Hildegard of Bingen noted that oil of lavender was effective in the treatment of head lice and fleas.
In 16th century France lavender was regarded as an effective and reliable protection against infection. Glove makers who were licensed to perfume their wares with lavender often seemed to escape cholera.
17th century lavender was found in most herbals as a cure all. The great English herbalists Gerard, Parkinson and Culpepper all wrote about lavender. Great interest was generated and lavender street sellers appeared. Prices were high during the Great Plague of 1665 when lavender was thought to protect against this terrible disease. Graverobbers washed plague victim’s belongings in Four Thieves Vinegar, which contained lavender.
Queen Victoria was a great enthusiast in the use of lavender. She appointed Miss Sarah Sprules “ Purvey of Lavender Essence to the Queen.” Lavender was very fashionable among the ladies. They bought it from street sellers who brought it up from Mitcham. Fresh lavender was dried and put into muslin bags for wardrobes, used to wash walls and furniture and lavender bags were stuffed between sheets in linen presses. Lavender was used to repel inspects, treat lice, as a perfume and a potpourri, in furniture polish and soap and as a cure-all in household medicine cupboards. Smaller bags were made for young women to wear in their cleavage in hopes of attracting a suitor. Lavender appeared in the London Pharmacopoeia. Its overuse contributed to its loss of popularity in the early 20th century when it became associated with old ladies.
In the US, Shakers grew lavender commercially. It was popular in gift items and medicines.
Rene Gattefosse, one of the founders of modern day aromatherapy, verified the healing and antiseptic qualities of lavender when he burned his hand badly while working in his lab. He used lavender oil; the pain stopped and the burn heal quickly with no infection or scarring. Lavender oil was used to dress war wounds during the 1st world war medical antiseptics were in short supply.
Provence is now the world’s largest lavender producing region. Specialising in high altitude lavender. The Romans first brought it into the area. By the 20th century shepherds collected it to sell to perfumeries of Grasse. Just before World War I, perfumers and the French government saw lavender production as a means of keeping people from leaving the area so they cleared the almonds orchards and planted lavender.
Today it is used to induce sleep, ease stress and relieve depression. It is also used as a tea, to make compresses for dressing wounds and to apply to the forehead to relieve congestion on sinuses, headaches, hangovers, tiredness, tension and exhaustion.
The lavender used by Celia Lindsell is organically grown on the southern slopes on Mont Ventoux, Provence, France. This is high altitude lavender, grown at about 1000m. High altitude lavender plants produce the finest quality oil, this is largely due the fact that the flowering tops of these plants cannot be harvested by machine and for its high ester count. The esters are what makes it calming.
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