For The Love of Lavender

O’Keeffe (A Beggar on Horseback, 1798) ~ “My dear, have some lavender, or you’d best have a thimble full of wine, your spirits are quite down, my sweeting.”

“Here’s your sweet lavender
sixteen sprigs a penny
that you’ll find my ladies
will smell as sweet as any.”

Lavender Sellers’s Cry, London England CA 1900

~I love lavender, such a wonderful fragrance, among the best in the world.  Every year we plant more seedlings, some we’ve grown ourselves from seed, in an effort to keep them going.  Lavender is also one of those plants we have difficulty getting through our harder winters and so may or may not come back.  Of the different kinds we’ve grown, Lavender Munstead seems to be the hardiest.  Being dwarf, it doesn’t get too big to interplant among other herbs and roses.  The French variety from Provence has the most exquisite fragrance but isn’t terribly hardy.  If possible, provide a sunny sheltered location out of strong north-west winds and the plants will be longer lived.  Prune back dead growth in the spring.

Lavender flowers are easily dried, make delightful sachets, and are an essential ingredient in potpourri.  I suppose one could ‘make do’ with rose petals, but I like a mix of both along with other herbs, spices, and essential oils.  In addition to its highly valued scent, lavender has a history of medicinal use and a rich lore.~

Turner (Herbal, 1545) ~ ”I judge that the flowers of lavender quilted in a cappe and dayly worn are good for all diseases of the head that come of a cold cause and that they comfort the braine very well.”

From A Modern Herbal:

“The fragrant oil to which the odour of Lavender flowers is due is a valuable article of commerce, much used in perfumery, and to a lesser extent in medicine. The fine aromatic smell is found in all parts of the shrub, but the essential oil is only produced from the flowers and flower-stalks. Besides being grown for the production of this oil, Lavender is widely sold in the fresh state as ‘bunched Lavender,’ and as ‘dried Lavender,’ the flowers are used powdered, for sachet making and also for pot-pourri…

ENGLISH LAVENDER (Lavandula vera), the common narrow-leaved variety, grows 1 to 3 feet high (in gardens, occasionally somewhat taller), The majority of the oil yielded by the flowers is contained in the glands on the calyx. The two-lipped corolla is of a beautiful bluish-violet colour.

French Lavender oil is distilled from two distinct plants, found in the mountain districts of Southem France, both included under the name of L. officinalis by the sixteenth-century botanists, and L. vera by De Candolle. The oils from the two plants are very similar, but the former yields oils with the higher percentage of esters.

The SPIKE LAVENDER (L. spica, D.C., or latifolia, Vill.) is a coarser, broadleaved variety of the Lavender shrub, also found in the mountain districts of France and Spain, The flowers yield three times as much of the essential oil – known as Spike oil – as can be got from our narrowleaved plant, but it is of a second-rate quality, less fragrant than that of the true Lavender, its odour resembling a mixture of the oils of Lavender and Rosemary. Parkinson in his Garden of Pleasure says the L. spica ‘is often called the Lesser Lavender or minor, and is called by some, Nardus Italica.’ Some believe that this is the Spikenard mentioned in the Bible.

History: Dr. Fernie, in Herbal Simples, says:

‘By the Greeks the name Nardus is given to Lavender, from Naarda, a city of Syria near the Euphrates, and many persons call the plant “Nard.” St. Mark mentions this as Spikenard, a thing of great value…. In Pliny’s time, blossoms of the Nardus sold for a hundred Roman denarii (or L.3 2s. 6d.) the pound. This Lavender or Nardus was called Asarum by the Romans, because it was not used in garlands or chaplets. It was formerly believed that the asp, a dangerous kind of viper, made Lavender its habitual place of abode, so that the plant had to be approached with great caution.’

L. Stoechas Another species of LAVENDER, L. Stoechas, known also as French Lavender, forms a pretty little shrub, with narrow leaves and very small, dark violet flowers. It is very abundant on the islands of Hyères, which the Ancient Romans called the ‘Stoechades,’ after this plant. This was probably the Lavender so extensively used in classical times by the Romans and the Libyans, as a perfume for the bath (whence probably the plant derived its name – from the Latin, lavare, to wash). It is plentiful in Spain and Portugal and is only used as a rule for strewing the floors of churches and houses on festive occasions, or to make bonfires on St. John’s Day, when evil spirits are supposed to be abroad, a custom formerly observed in England with native plants.

The odour is more akin to Rosemary than to ordinary Lavender. The flowers of this species were used medicinally in England until about the middle of the eighteenth century, the plant being called by our old authors, ‘Sticadore.’ It was one of the ingredients of the ‘Four Thieves’ Vinegar’ famous in the Middle Ages. It is not used for distillation, though in France and Spain, the country people, in a simple manner extract an oil, used for dressing wounds, by hanging the flowers downwards in a closed bottle in the sunshine. The Arabs make use of the flowers as an expectorant and antispasmodic.

The Dwarf Lavender is more compact than the other forms and has flowers of a deeper colour. It makes a neat edging in the fruit or kitchen garden, where the larger forms might be in the way, and the flowers, borne abundantly, are useful for cutting.

All the forms of Lavender are much visited by bees and prove a good source of honey.

Lavender was familiar to Shakespeare, but was probably not a common plant in his time, for though it is mentioned by Spencer as ‘The Lavender still gray’ and by Gerard as growing in his garden, it is not mentioned by Bacon in his list of sweet-smelling plants. It is now found in every garden, but we first hear of it being cultivated in England about 1568. It must soon have become a favourite, however, for among the long familiar gardenplants which the Pilgrim Fathers took with them to their new home in America, we find the names of Lavender, Rosemary and Southernwood, though John Josselyn, in his Herbal, says that ‘Lavender Cotton groweth pretty well,’ but that ‘Lavender is not for the Climate.’

Parkinson has much to say about Lavender:

‘Of Sage and of Lavender, both the purple and the rare white (there is a kinde hereof that beareth white flowers and somewhat broader leaves, but it is very rare and seene but in few places with us, because it is more tender and will not so well endure our cold Winters).’

‘Lavender,’ he says, ‘is almost wholly spent with us, for to perfume linnen, apparell, gloves and leather and the dryed flowers to comfort and dry up the moisture of a cold braine.

‘This is usually put among other hot herbs, either into bathes, ointment or other things that are used for cold causes. The seed also is much used for worms.’

Lavender is of ‘especiall good use for all griefes and paines of the head and brain,’ it is now almost solely grown for the extraction of its essential oil, which is largely employed in perfumery.

Of French Lavender he says:

‘The whole plant is somewhat sweete, but nothing so much as Lavender. It groweth in the Islands Staechades which are over against Marselles and in Arabia also: we keep it with great care in our Gardens. It flowreth the next yeare after it is sowne, in the end of May, which is a moneth before any Lavender.’

Lavender was one of the old street cries, and white lavender is said to have grown in the garden of Queen Henrietta Maria.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Lavender was used in earlier days as a condiment and for flavouring dishes ‘to comfort the stomach.’ Gerard speaks of Conserves of Lavender being served at table.

It has aromatic, carminative and nervine properties. Though largely used in perfumery, it is now not much employed internally, except as a flavouring agent, occurring occasionally in pharmacy to cover disagreeable odours in ointments and other compounds.

Red Lavender lozenges are employed both as a mild stimulant and for their pleasant taste.

The essential oil, or a spirit of Lavender made from it, proves admirably restorative and tonic against faintness, palpitations of a nervous sort, weak giddiness, spasms and colic. It is agreeable to the taste and smell, provokes appetite, raises the spirits and dispels flatulence. The dose is from 1 to 4 drops on sugar or in a spoonful or two of milk.

A few drops of the essence of Lavender in a hot footbath has a marked influence in relieving fatigue. Outwardly applied, it relieves toothache, neuralgia, sprains, and rheumatism. In hysteria, palsy and similar disorders of debility and lack of nerve power, Lavender will act as a powerful stimulant.

‘It profiteth them much,’ says Gerard, ‘that have the palsy if they be washed with the distilled water from the Lavender flowers, or are anointed with the oil made from the flowers and olive oil in such manner as oil of roses is used.’

Culpepper says that:

‘a decoction made with the flowers of Lavender, Horehound, Fennel and Asparagus root, and a little Cinnamon, is very profitably used to help the falling-sickness (epilepsy) and the giddiness or turning of the brain.’

Salmon in his Herbal (1710) says that:

‘it is good also against the bitings of serpents, mad-dogs and other venomous creature, being given inwardly and applied poultice-wise to the parts wounded. The spirituous tincture of the dried leaves or seeds, if prudently given, cures hysterick fits though vehement and of long standing.’

In some cases of mental depression and delusions, oil of Lavender proves of real service, and a few drops rubbed on the temple will cure nervous headache.

Compound Tincture of Lavender, sold under the name of Lavender drops, besides being a useful colouring and flavouring for mixtures, is still largely used for faintness. This tincture of red Lavender is a popular medicinal cordial, and is composed of the oils of Lavender and Rosmary, with cinnamon bark, nutmeg and red sandle wood, macerated in spirit of wine for seven days. A teaspoonful may be taken as a dose in a little water after an indigestible meal, repeating after half an hour if needed.

It has been officially recognized in the successive British Pharmacopoeia for over 200 years. In the eighteenth century, this preparation was known as ‘palsy drops’ and as ‘red hartshorn.’ The formula which first appeared in the London Pharmacopoeia at the end of the seventeenth century was a complicated one. It contained nearly thirty ingredients, and was prepared by distilling the fresh flowers of lavender, sage, rosemary, betony, cowslips, lily of the valley, etc., with French brandy; in the distillate such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamoms were digested for twenty-four hours, and then musk, ambergris, saffron, red roses and red sanders-wood were tied in a bag and suspended in the spirit to perfume and colour it. The popularity of this remedy for two hundred and fifty years may be understood by referring to the statements made concerning its virtues when it was first made official. It was said to be useful:

‘against the Falling-sickness, and all cold Distempers of the Head, Womb, Stomach and Nerves; against the Apoplexy, Palsy, Convulsions, Megrim, Vertigo, Loss of Memory, Dimness of Sight, Melancholy, Swooning Fits and Barrenness in Women. It was given in canary, or the Syrup of the Juice of Black-cherries, or in Florence wine. Country people may take it in milk or fair water sweetened with sugar…. It is an excellent but costly medicine.’

In the London Pharmacopoeia of 1746 a very drastic change was made in the recipe and practically no change has been made since that time.

A tea brewed from Lavender tops, made in moderate strength, is excellent to relieve headache from fatigue and exhaustion, giving the same relief as the application of Lavender water to the temples. An infusion taken too freely, will, however, cause griping and colic, and Lavender oil in too large doses is a narcotic poison and causes death by convulsions.

‘The chymical oil drawn from Lavender,’ to quote Culpepper, ‘usually called Oil of Spike, is of so fierce and piercing a quality, that it is cautiously to be used, some few drops being sufficient to be given with other things, either for inward or outward griefs.’

Lavender oil is found of service when rubbed externally for stimulating paralysed limbs. Mixed with 3/4 spirit of turpentine or spirit of wine it made the famous Oleum Spicae, formerly much celebrated for curing old sprains and stiff joints. Fomentations with Lavender in bags, applied hot, will speedily relieve local pains.

A distilled water made from Lavender has been used as a gargle and for hoarseness and loss of voice.

Its use in the swabbing of wounds obtained further proof during the War, and the French Academy of Medicine is giving attention to the oil for this and other antiseptic surgical purposes. The oil is successfully used in the treatment of sores, varicose ulcers, burns and scalds. In France, it is a regular thing for most households to keep a bottle of Essence of Lavender as a domestic remedy against bruises, bites and trivial aches and pains, both external and internal.

Lavender Water can easily be prepared at home. Into a quart bottle are put 1 OZ. essential oil of Lavender, one drop of Musk and 1 1/2 pint spirits of wine. These three ingredients are well mixed together by shaking. The mixture is left to settle, shaken again in a few days, then poured into little perfume bottles fitted with air-tight stoppers. This is another recipe from an old family book:

‘Put into a bottle half a pint of spirit of wine and two drachms of oil of lavender. Mix it with rose-water, five ounces, orange-flower water, two ounces, also two drachms of musk and six ounces of distilled water.’

This is stated to be ‘a pleasant and efficacious cordial and very useful in languor and weakness of the nerves, lowness of spirits, faintings, etc.’

Another recipe is to mix 2 oz. of refined essence of Lavender with 3/4 pint of good brandy. This Lavender Water is so strong that it must be diluted with water before it is used.

Lavender Vinegar. A refreshing toilet preparation is made by mixing 6 parts of Rosewater, 1 part of spirits of Lavender and 2 parts of Orleans vinegar.

It can also be prepared from freshly gathered flower-tops. These are dried, placed in a stoppered bottle and steeped for a week in Orleans vinegar. Every day the bottle must be shaken, and at the end of the week the liquid is drained off and filtered through white blotting paper.

Another delicious and aromatic toilet vinegar is made as follows: Dry a good quantity of rose leaves, lavender flowers and jasmine flowers. Weigh them, and to every 4 oz. of rose leaves allow 1 OZ. each of lavender and jasmine. Mix them well together, pour over them 2 pints of white vinegar, and shake well, then add 1/2 pint of rose-water and shake again. Stand aside for ten days, then strain and bottle.”~

There are many, many ways to enjoy lavender and benefit from this wonderful herb.  I hope you come away from this post inspired to put in a few plants this year,  or grow one in a pot.

4 responses to “For The Love of Lavender

  1. Caroline Clemmons

    I use lavender often–the soap, the oil on pot pourri, and the candle. It does soothe the nerves, and I love the fragrance. I’d love to go to France when the fields are in bloom, but my husband is allergic to the dried flowers. I suspect he’d never be able to survive the trip. There’s a lavender farm about an hour from us, though, and my daughter and I plan a visit when the flowers are blooming. Once again, a great post!


  2. Thanks Caroline. There’s a lavender farm near us I intend to visit this summer.


  3. Very informative post, Beth. And the pictures you’ve chosen to accompany it are lovely, yet calming. But them lavendar is my favorite color. As always, your post displays great research. ~ Vonnie


  4. Thanks so much Vonnie. I so enjoy this sort of thing.


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