Have you ever traveled in Provence? If so, you may have admired the purple haze of lavender fields. Lavender (lavendula angustifolia), known as herb de Provence, is a small aromatic perennial shrub grown for use in sachets and soap and for lavender oil which is used both as a medicinal and as a perfume. Fresh, crushed, or dried the herb is used as a tea and as a stimulant, sedative, antiseptic, linen-closet freshener and moth repellant; it’s also sprinkled in bath water and used to treat burns and bites. Wands of stems can be tied in bunches and burned as incense sticks. There is even lavender-flavored lemonade.
Historically, lavender (from the Latin verb lavare, to wash) dates from ancient times. Ancient Egyptians used it for cosmetics and for embalming; Tutankhamen’s tomb contained jars of lavender-scented unguents. Greek philosopher Diogenes anointed his feet with lavender oil so that it “envelopes my whole body and gratefully ascends to my nose”.Lavender is thought to have been first domesticated in Arabia and, with the 7th century Arab conquest of the Middle East and Spain, the use of lavender spread throughout Europe. Arab physicians and researchers such as Avicenna (980 A.D.) studied medicinal uses of the herb.
The plant can be propagated from cuttings or from seed, requires good drainage, likes chalky soil and lots of sunshine and needs no fertilizer. Extracting the essential oil is by steam distillation, just like brewing whiskey in a still. One acre of lavender yields 300 to 1800 pounds of dried flowers or 2 gallons of essential oil.
Provence is now the world’s primary lavender producer; prior to World War I, the French government (and perfume-makers) saw lavender production as a means of keeping people from leaving the area of southern France, so the almond orchards were cleared to plant lavender.
In America, Shakers were the first to grow lavender commercially. Later, when the founder of modern-day aromatherapy, Rene Gattefosse, burned his hand while working in his laboratory, he used lavender oil, which stopped the pain and healed the burn with no infection or scarring. Today, lavender farms thrive in California, Texas, Washington, Oregon, and even upstate New York.
Interesting historical uses of lavender include the following:
When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, lavender culture moved to domestic gardens. Traditionally, it was planted near the laundry, and washed clothing was laid over the plants to dry with an enticing fragrance. Mixed with beeswax, lavender made furniture polish.
Queen Elizabeth I drank a lavender tea to treat her headaches and was so enthusiastic about the plant she encouraged the development of lavender farms. Charles VI of France stuffed his cushions with lavender. Glovemakers in France were licensed to perfume their gloves with lavender because it was believed to prevent cholera.
Queen Victoria loved lavender! She appointed a special Purveyor of Lavender Essence to the Queen, and lavender came to be fashionable among her ladies. Street sellers in London sold dried lavender; it was then put into muslin sachet bags for use in wardrobes and between bedsheets. Young women wore small sachets in their cleavage to attract suitors.
And in the Old West, young and old women did exactly the same.
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