Cultivated primarily in southern France, Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Indies. Today, with more than fifty different verities, lavender can be found most everywhere, but the most productive plants and the finest of oils are born in Provence. Blossoms, whether carefully cultivated or growing freely can be found blanketing the region’s open fields and crawling down the slopes of nearby mountains. Provence’s altitude (rising above 3,000 feet) is responsible for the plant’s unique ability to resist both heat and cold, and to protect its high concentration of medicinal ingredients.
The use of lavender has been documented for more than 2,000 years. Ancient Romans used the herb for cooking, mixing it with other herbs to flavor meats. They also used it in the bath or by rubbing the petals directly on the body, which served as both a skin treatment and insect repellent. Burning dried lavender also delivered a dual purpose by repelling insects and sweetening the air. The ancient Egyptians however, took the oil’s use one-step further using it regularly during the mummification process.
Spikenard, the name most often attributed to lavender in ancient history is documented throughout the Bible. Some Christians believe Adam and Eve took the plant from the Garden of Eden. The gospel of John speaks of Mary using the oil to wash the feet of Jesus, “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment,” (John 12:3) Some translations of the Bible refer to the herb by its ancient Greek name nard.
Medieval Europe, taking its cue from history found a number of ways to use the herb, some uses were religious, others superstitious. Either way, the herb remained popular with royalty and commoners alike. During the 16th century, French glove makers often used lavender to scent their hand wares; strangely enough these craftsmen escaped an epidemic of cholera. A century later, London grave robbers were believed to have eluded the great Plague by using “Four Thieves Vinegar,” a concoction made with a vinegar base and the addition of herbs. The wash is thought to have kept these men safe from the plague as they rustled their way through the dead bodies and took their valuables. Others used the herb for the same purpose in a slightly different way by fastening twined bracelets of lavender to their wrists.
European royalty considered lavender’s benefits invaluable as well. Charles VI slept on nothing but lavender filled pillows. Queen Elizabeth I expected fresh lavender available and displayed in vases every day of the year regardless of weather, and her dinner table to be set with lavender conserve, a bittersweet and gooey fruit spread similar to our own modern day jams. Louis XIV bathed in water scented with lavender oil, and Queen Victoria indulged in lavender deodorant.
Lavender, particularly lavandula officinalis (French lavender) is harvested during flowering. Picked by hand, the buds are harvested at midday to insure the oil content is at its highest. The buds are then distilled with steam in order to extract the flower’s essential oils. Lavender’s most important active components are geraniol (a plant based mosquito repellent), cineole (anti-inflammatory, antiseptic properties), and coumarin, which is known to contain blood-thinning, anti-fungicidal and anti-tumor properties (never to be used in addition to blood thinners). Each of these ingredients boasts cleansing and germicidal properties, in addition to being used in the treatment of pain and anti-inflammatory conditions.
One of the few essential oils that can be safely used on the skin in its natural state, lavender is popular for its many benefits. Topically, a combination of lavender oil (ten drops) added to four ounces of water is a handy addition to the beach bag for the relief of sunburn. Kitchen burns may be treated by using the oil in an undiluted form; just a few drops will reduce the risk of blistering and take away the initial sting. Lavender’s anti-inflammatory properties are said to aid in lessening the pain and inflammation that accompany neuralgia when mixed with St. John’s Wort oil (ten drops of lavender to two tablespoons of St. John’s Wort Oil). Beneficial for other skin irritations as well, lavender oil, combined with distilled water (three drops of oil to one quart of water) mixed in a spritzer bottle will calm, moisturize, and help promote circulation. Safe to use on the entire body, this lavender spritz may also be used on the face.
Lavender oil’s therapeutic serviceability is inarguable, but for some the aroma itself is reminiscent of a day at the spa. The most luxuriant lavender bath is easily attained at home by mixing five drops of lavender oil, a cup of heavy cream and a small amount of honey together (one to two teaspoons). Added to bath water, this mixture will leave you rested, free of anxiety, and ready for bed!
When added to the final rinse cycle in your washing machine, lavender will quickly have your clothes smelling like a spring morning, although some people prefer to skip the wash cycle and place an oil infused cloth into the dryer instead. Indulging in the aromatic benefits of this essential oil is actually more cost efficient than buying ready-made bath and laundry products. Just a few drops go a very long way.
Dried lavender is especially fragrant and may be beautifully displayed within the home. The random bowl on a countertop or end table, a lavender wreath hung on the door, or even the freshly picked lavender gathered from your own backyard, tied in a bunch with ribbon and hung in the kitchen. Sachets for the drawer can be made at home by taking those extra socks (the ones you can’t find a match for), and filling them with lavender buds. Just stuff, knot, and place in those out of the way places that need some freshening; linen closets, lingerie drawers, and clothing closets.
Another way of adding the fresh fragrance to your home is to place a mixture of lavender oil and water in a pot, turn on the stovetop, simmer, and inhale. If you want to spice up the fragrance a bit, lavender’s scent may be blended with citrus oil. A simmering pot of water fused with four drops of lavender oil, two drops of bergamot oil, and two drops of lemon oil is irresistible. This slightly spicy fragrance will permeate and purify the air in your home and lift your spirits at the same time.
A favorite of gardeners for centuries, lavender makes an excellent addition to flower beds. Lavender plants tolerate a large spectrum of growing conditions and the many varieties available almost insure success, even for the novice. Once lavender has grown to maturity it will be a healthy, hearty, and beautiful addition to your yard. Some of you may be thinking, “but I haven’t got a yard.” The bad news, your lavender crop might be rather small. The good news; lavender roots love to be bound in small places making the plant an excellent choice for an indoor pot. For those who aren’t quite that adventurous, numerous lavender products are available for purchase including gels, soaps, lotions, aromatherapy oils, and of course essential lavender oil in its purest form.
The Complete Guide to Natural Healing, International Masters Publishers, @ MCMXCIX