In this edition of Common Scents, we will explore the rich and royalty-filled history of (almost) everyone's favorite essential oil: lavender! Lavender first entered documentation around 77 AD, when it was thought to be a sort of cure-all. Today, lavender has many applications in aromatherapy, soap and cosmetics. It has proven to be one of the most versatile essential oils, and was coveted by royalty and commoners alike.
What's in a Name?
As with most words, the word "lavender" is rooted in Latin. Lavender is derived from lavare, the Latin verb meaning "to wash". Historically, lavender has been mistaken for a similar, related plant named spikenard, or spike lavender. The Greeks called it naardus or naarda, after the city of Naardus in Syria. No matter what name lavender has gone by throughout history, one thing stayed consistent; everyone loved it!
History Smells Like Lavender.
Egyptian royalty and high priests valued lavender for a myriad of reasons. One reason was embalming; if you wanted your vital organs to be well preserved and fragrant, the Egyptians had you covered! When the tomb of King Tut was opened and explored in 1923 by Howard Carter, he could still make out the faint smell of what was believed to be lavender after 3,000 years.
Greek physicians valued lavender for its healing properties. A Greek botanist named Dioscorides wrote about the soothing benefits of ingesting lavender in De Materia Medica, a comprehensive historical text used by many historical civilizations to treat illnesses and injuries. He claimed that ingesting lavender helped to relieve indigestion, headaches, and sore throats.
Around the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen wrote about a practical use for lavender oil; she discovered that the oil was an effective treatment of both head lice and fleas, common issues in that time period. She also claimed that using lavender gave one knowledge and a "pure spirit". She would recommend that her readers mix lavender with wine at a lukewarm temperature; she claimed that this concoction would help to alleviate liver and lung pain.
In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth used lavender to soothe her migraines and also favored the purple plant as a perfume.
Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I, adored lavender also and used it to scent her soaps, potpourris, and bath water. King Charles VI (France) sat on seat cushions stuffed with lavender.
The mid-16th century saw a rise in communicable diseases, such as cholera and the plague. The price of lavender was much higher during this time period as people believed that it could protect them against the Great Plague of 1665. Lavender could be found in most medicines and was touted as a "cure-all"; a promised remedy those suffering from the nightmarish plague desperately needed.
The Victorian era marked a return to lavender's luxury roots. Women loved lavender and bought it in substantial amounts for varying uses from street vendors. These vendors bought their lavender supply almost exclusively from a town called Mitcham; the soothing lavender fields of which became popular with those affected by the plague, and had become the center of lavender oil production previously in the Elizabethan era. Victorian ladies and gentlemen used lavender to wash walls, clean their furniture and freshen their clothes. Lavender was also commonly used to repel insects, treat head lice (still very common in the Victorian era), and remained a staple in many medicine cabinets. Unfortunately, due to its gratuitous overuse as a perfume by specific female age groups, lavender lost most of its appeal and was widely considered an "old woman's smell".
Fast forward to modern times. Lavender was used as an antiseptic during World War I, when traditional antiseptics were in short supply. Many people still use lavender today for its proclaimed natural anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Mixing a few drops of lavender essential oil with water is said to help repel fleas and other unwanted insects when sprayed on carpets and furniture, and lavender is used frequently alongside oatmeal in soaps to help soothe irritation of the skin. Many people claim that lavender can be used to either soothe or cure the following ailments:
- Digestive issues
- Dementia symptoms
- General pain
- Immune Deficiency
- Infection of wounds
- Venomous bites
It is important to note that these are observations and claims made by those who have used lavender; the FDA has not approved lavender in a medical capacity.
Lavender, Soap and Cosmetics
The lavender we use for soap and cosmetics can come in a few shapes and sizes. Lavender oil is usually used to scent soaps, while the dried buds can be used as a gentle exfoliant in the bar itself, or on top of the bar as a decoration. Today's lavender oil comes in different variations, from blends of different types of lavender to pure French lavender oil. Lavender remains one of the most popular essential oils, and with the many types available, is easily accessible for most budgets.
Lavender has a rich and storied history that dates back to some of the earliest records known to mankind. Many historical physicians and botanists believed that lavender was the cure to everything, and could even provide spiritual benefits. Although some of these claims may or may not be true, it is imperative that you follow the FDA's guidelines for labeling; this includes making claims that are not approved by the FDA. Our How-To Library contains a great podcast about labeling by expert Marie Gale.