The History of Lavender

Lavender field.

It is for good reason humans have been cultivating lavender since the beginning of modern history. That’s enough time to give this plant a biography as winding as it is long. From lovers’ beds to wars and plagues, lavender has been used for a million reasons. Does lavender really have magical properties, or do we just love the smell that much?

What’s in a Name?

Today there are over 45 different species of lavender grown around the world, but this ancient plant first made its debut in the Mediterranean region thousands of years ago extending from Cleopatra to modern times. In historical documents it was commonly referred to as “spikenard,” a word that today indicates a different species of plant. 

The ancient Romans are responsible for coining its modern name, “lavender,” which comes from the root lavare and means “to wash.” This is because both the Greeks and the Romans often steeped bundles of lavender into bathing water, likely to take advantage of lavender’s antiseptic properties. Soap did not come into regular use until the common era and the use of lavender and other plant extracts helped mitigate the growth of bacteria and skin fungus.

The connection to washing is also a nod to the ancient practice of drying clothing on lavender bushes, which lasted well into the middle ages. This had the very practical function of preventing moths and other pests from eating clean garments, but for many years it also had more mystical connotations as well. Early Christians believed that lavender was originally imbued with its scent when the Virgin Mary laid baby Jesus’ clothes to dry atop a lavender bush. So powerful was this idea that sprigs of lavender were often hung in homes, worn around the neck, or fashioned into crosses to provide spiritual protection and help ward off evil spirits. 

The link between lavender and laundry is one that has endured throughout history and remains with us today, (hello, lavandin-based laundry products). European washerwomen in the middle ages were known as “lavenders” for both drying textiles on lavender bushes and scenting clean garments with the plant before storing them. 

Creating, sewing, and washing garments was a time-consuming and expensive part of daily life. The amount of care that was taken to protect textiles with lavender speaks to the fundamental importance of this plant. 

Today, lavender is still associated with laundry for many of the same reasons it has been for thousands of years. But there is one more benefit to add to the list. Science now has a much better understanding of the calming and anxiety-reducing properties of lavender, which means that in addition to warding off moths, keeping the sheets smelling like lavender can induce a better night’s rest. It’s no wonder why Alpine women began stuffing their mattresses in the name of love. Perhaps better sleep really did lead to happier marriages!

Lavender in Egypt

Although native to the Mediterranean, it’s believed that lavender was first farmed and distilled for oils in the Arabian peninsula over 2,500 years ago. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Arabians used lavender oil in both perfumery and mummification. Cleopatra is said to have seduced Julius Caesar and Marc Antony with the sweet scent of lavender, and that the viper that ultimately killed her lay hidden in her private lavender bushes. Many historians believe the latter part of this myth may have been concocted by Roman farmers to inflate commercial prices of lavender. If harvesting the plant put farmers at risk of snake bites, it was justifiable to raise the going rate. 

Nonetheless, Cleopatra is only one of many famous royals to be associated with the lavender plant.  When Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb in 1923, the faint smell of lavender could still be detected 3,000 years later. Floral perfumes were so important to ancient Egyptians that they mastered the art of trapping these scents through the use of unguent cones. Made mostly from animal fat, these cones would be placed on the head to melt slowly and release floral fragrances over time. 

Lavender and the Church

It wasn’t until 600 BCE that lavender found its way to Europe, via trade by Greeks or Romans (who precisely is responsible, is still debated). This hardy plant took to the soil and imagination of Europe, immediately. To this day, France still boasts some of the highest quality lavender in the world, although the lavender that now comes out of Washington state may have usurped the title. 

Along with the plant came information about its medicinal benefits, which is probably why the early European stewards of lavender bushes were monasteries. The church was responsible for growing herbs to be used medicinally in their communities, and monks quickly added lavender to their “physic” gardens. Lavender was believed to ward off evil spirits or as we call them today, microbes and bacteria, and bundles would be burned in sick rooms to fumigate the space.

It was also common practice to find bundles of lavender hung above home doorways or in bedrooms to keep demons at bay. Church floors, especially in Spain and Portugal, would be strewn with lavender to provide extra protection against evil spirits. There was also a sanitary benefit to this application since lavender deters bugs and critters from coming inside. Regardless of whether the concern is demons or pests, lavender has a long history of protective use.

In the 12th century, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen thoroughly studied lavender and devoted a whole chapter in her book on healing to this plant. She noted it’s particular effectiveness for treating fleas and head lice (a remedy that was used well into the 1800s), and also concocted a beverage to treat migraines. Known as “lavender water,” this drink was made from vodka, gin, or brandy mixed with lavender. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Plague Protection

Lavender’s reputation as a protective plant and healing antidote took on a whole new intensity during the bubonic plague. Also known as the Black Death, this deadly pandemic peaked from 1347-1351, and afflicted Europe repeatedly well into the 17th century. In four short years it is believed to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population, and is still considered the deadliest pandemic in human history. 

Found in sick rooms, home doorways, and wrapped in bundles on the wrist, lavender was widely believed to protect humans from the great plague. At the time it was common belief that the disease was a punishment from God, and because of lavender’s divine properties, it offered protection from the evil spirits and demons that caused it. Of course, it is now understood that the bubonic plague was in fact transmitted by fleas. However, the insect-repelling properties of lavender likely did protect against the bug bites and hence lowered chances of contracting the plague. If the modern flu was transmitted by fleas, it’s possible humans would still be doing this today.

Lavender in the 20th century

In the last century, lavender has become widely available as an essential oil, and it’s this distilled essence that’s commonly used as a healing agent. But when did Lavender Essential Oil transcend the perfumers’ laboratory to find a place in everybody’s medicine cabinet? It all began in the 1930s when the French chemist and perfumer René-Maurice Gattefossé burned his hand in his factory. He used lavender essential oil to treat his burn wound and was amazed at how quickly he healed. He went on to publish a book, “Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales,” where he coined the term “aromatherapy.”

In this sense, it might be fair to call lavender the OG essential oil. Not only did Gattefossé popularize the skin care benefits of lavender (so much so that lavender essential oil was used to treat wounds in WWII), but it sparked the scientific study of this and so many other essential oils. Research now confirms that lavender can relieve anxiety, minimize pain, and repel bugs, in addition to having many other benefits.

Modern humans might have different explanations for the conditions we’re trying to treat, but lavender is still used for many of the same reasons it was 2,500 years ago. It’s common folklore that Adam and Eve stole lavender from the Garden of Eden, and it’s easy to imagine such a story when the plant is so useful. The floral scent still delights the imagination and remains a common ingredient in perfumes, candles, and massage oils, today. The bug repellent properties are just as good for the closet as they ever were, and during times of fatigue and insomnia, lavender is still the first essential oil we turn to. 

Categories: Essential Oils

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