Latin Name: Lavandula angustifolia (aka L. Vera; L. officinalis)
Common Name: Lavender (aka True Lavender)
DESCRIPTION/HABITAT: True lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is one member of a genus of 39 species of flowering plants of the mint family (Labiatae) that are considered “lavenders” and it is important not to confuse “true” lavender with other members of the Lavandula genus as their actions and properties are distinctly different. The Lavandula genus includes annuals, woody perennials and small shrubs. Lavandula angustifolia is a small, evergreen woody herb reported by most sources to be native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, tropical areas of Africa, southern India, and the area around modern day Iraq. Today, it is in medicinal use by indigenous people in Mexico, outside its region of origin, where it is mixed with the native Heimia salicifolia together with Tagetes lucida, and Rosmarinus officinalis as a bathing preparation used to aid women who are infertile (Ratsch, C., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, Park Street Press, 1998, p. 267). It seems logical that the plant would have been introduced by invading Europeans who brought it with them.
Today, several species of lavender, including true lavender, grow wild in the alkaline soils of the mountainous regions of France. These types of poor soils produce the best plants for essential oil. The natural habitat of lavender is restricted to a relatively small area between 2,296 and 3,609 feet in the southern French Alps and this area is now the only source of true wild lavender (L. vera). The mountains around the French towns of Barles, Bayons and Barreme have long been important for the cultivation of lavender. The town of Digne-les-Bains is famous for its five day lavender festival, which draws members of the fragrance industry from all over the world. The area around Vaucluse also produces some fine lavender.
Lavender is commercially grown outside its native range in Europe, England, Australia, Russia, and America. Today, the major producers of the essential oil are in France, Bulgaria, Croatia and Russia. The French essential oils are generally regarded as the best.
Lavender flowers produce abundant nectar and yield a high quality honey which is sold and marketed worldwide and this enterprise also makes an important economic contribution to those areas where lavender is grown.
HISTORY: The name “lavender” is often said to come from the Latin word “lavare” meaning “to wash” because the Romans were known to use it in their baths. However, Sally Festing in The Story of Lavender (Festing, S., The Story of Lavender, Hyperion Books, 1985) suggests that the English name “lavender” most likely came from the Latin word “livendula” which means “bluish” and is the root of the word “livid”.
Lavender is one of the oldest medicinal herbs, having over 2500 years of recorded use. The Phoenicians and Egyptians had at least primitive methods of extracting the oil and used it in the mummification process. The lavender plant may have first been domesticated in Arabia well before the time of Jesus and was used there as an expectorant and antispasmodic. From Arabia, it was then carried by the Greeks and Romans, who used it to cure or ward off a host of illnesses. Eventually it reached France, Spain, Italy and England where it became well established as a remedy for stomach complaints and nervousness and as a cosmetic water to benefit the skin. It was used from very early times as a strewing herb for its deodorizing and disinfecting properties. It is also said to repel scorpions and is still used in parts of Europe for this purpose, where houses in the countryside will often have little bowls of lavender flowers resting on the window ledges. It was said to repel moths and to help prevent “mustiness” from mildew and it has a long history of use in sachets for drawers and closets.
Dioscorides, the famous first century Greek physician, recommended lavender for “griefs of the thorax” and also noted that it relieved headaches, indigestion and sore throats when used internally and was good for treating wounds or burns and for skin conditions when used externally (Dioscorides, De Materia Medica, and c. 65 A.D.). It was often cited by Hildegard of Bingen, the famous 12th century mystic. It was one of her favorite herbs and she recommended it for migraine headaches, a use which has persisted into modern times, as well as for “maintaining a pure character”. Later, it was one of the major ingredients of the so-called Thieves Vinegar used in the Middle Ages during the Plague and was also considered an aphrodisiac.
The Pilgrims brought Lavender with them to the New World, although it reportedly did not grow well in the climate. According to some sources, the Shakers were the first to grow lavender commercially in the USA and Canada.
By the 19th Century, doctors used lavender essential oil to treat headaches, memory loss, fainting, depression, and infertility in women.
Maude Grieve, the famous 20th Century herbalist, offered an extensive treatise on various species of lavender in her Herbal and this has been the source of much of the historical information on this plant that is now widely quoted in many books and articles (including this one!). She mentions the use of Lavandula stoechas as a strewing herb used in the churches of Spain and Portugal as well as in bonfires on St. John’s Day, when evil spirits were said to be about. Regarding the therapeutic actions and uses of lavender, she mentions its carminative and nervine properties and its use in depression, fatigue, snake bite, headache, loss of memory and an extensive array of other aliments. Grieve’s entries on lavender are well worth reading (A Modern Herbal, Vol. II by Mrs. M. Grieve, Dover Edition, 1971).