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Get to know Lavender

Lavender. The mere mention of the plant evokes sunshine, fields of vibrant purple-blue flowers, and its signature, unmistakable scent.

One of the oldest documented herbs, lavender has a fascinating 2,500-year-old history dating back to the Egyptians, who used it to produce healing ointments and perfume, and as a balm for mummification (including that of Tutankhamen!). The ancient Greeks called Lavender nardus (or more commonly, nard), after the Syrian city of Naarda. Lavender was one of the holy herbs and it is said that Mary used it on the baby Jesus, also anointing him with it after the crucifixion in preparation for burial.

Lavender derives its name from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. The Romans used lavender to scent their baths, beds, clothes, and hair. They also discovered its medicinal properties and used it to dress wounds. It is thought that when they conquered southern Britain, the Romans introduced lavender to that part of Europe. During Medieval and Renaissance times, washing women were known as “lavenders”, as they used lavender to scent drawers and dried laundry on lavender bushes. It was often used as a strewing herb to rid houses of pests; and during the height of a cholera epidemic in France, glove makers in Grasse would scent their leathers with lavender oil, which was claimed to ward off the Plague.

In 1630 when the Great Plague swept through Toulouse, France, legend has it that four thieves looted the city without contracting the disease. When they were finally caught, a judge decided to commute their death sentences, if they revealed the secret ingredients to the mysterious decoction that gave them immunity from the disease. The formula (now known as the “The 4 Thieves Vinegar”) was a combination of thyme, lavender, rosemary and sage steeped in vinegar. One hundred years later when the disease struck again in Marseilles, herbalists added garlic as a fifth ingredient.

In the 19th century, a French distiller of vinegar patented the formula and marketed it as an elixir. In London around the same time, during the Black Death, it was suggested that a bunch of lavender fastened to each wrist would protect the wearer against the deadly disease. This story could hold some truth, as the plague was transmitted by fleas, which lavender is known to repel. During the World War I when modern antiseptics were depleted, the public was asked to gather up garden lavender so the oil could be used to dress war wounds.

Over time, lavender has also been associated with love, chastity, and as an aphrodisiac. A brew of lavender sipped by maidens on St. Luke’s Day (October 18th) was said to help divine the identity of their true loves. In alpine regions, lavender added to pillows brought hopes of romance, while lavender under the bed of newlyweds ensured passion. In terms of magical uses, lavender was referred to as the “good witches” herb, as it was thought useful in averting the “evil eye”.

Royalty has valued lavender for centuries: Charles VI of France demanded lavender filled pillows wherever he went. Queen Elizabeth I of England required lavender “jam” at the royal table. She also wanted fresh lavender flowers available every day of the year – a daunting task for the royal gardeners if you think about Britain’s rainy climate. Louis XIV also loved lavender and bathed in water scented with it. Queen Victoria used a lavender deodorant and, both Elizabeth I and II used products from the famous lavender company Yardley and Co. of London.

Lavender has the most complex bouquet of all essential oils. In most species, the leaves are covered in fine hairs, which along with the flowers, contain the essential oils commonly extracted for commercial use. Lavender essential oil is used as a mosquito repellent, a disinfectant, an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatory, and for aromatherapy. An infusion of lavender is claimed to soothe and heal insect bites, sunburn and small cuts, burns and inflammatory conditions, internal medical conditions such as indigestion and heartburn, and even acne. Lavender flowers have gentle skin healing properties and can prevent scarring. That is why we use the flower in our Pregnant Belly Oil, Pregnant Belly Salve, and Birth & Baby Oil. It soothes headaches, migraines and motion sickness when applied to the temples, and is frequently used as an aid to sleep and relaxation.

Wherever and however lavender has been used and will continue to be used, it is only limited by the imagination!