In addition to the impressive documented history of lavender, there are many other interesting stories. Lavender was said to have been brought out of the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve because of its beautiful flowers. However, according to one popular legend, it had no scent until Mary laid the wet clothes of the infant Jesus on a lavender bush to dry: when the clothes were removed, the plant exuded its beautiful scent which it has kept to this day.
Many scholars believe that lavender was the herb referred to in the Gospel of Luke which tells of Mary Magdalene applying a fragrant ointment to the feet of Jesus. Although in most translations the ointment is said to contain “spikenard”, a name given today to an entirely different herb (Nardostachys jatamansi), the Greek name for lavender was “nardus” and the plant was often just called “nard” and possibly “spikenard”.
Legend says that Cleopatra used the lovely fragrance of lavender oil to seduce Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony but, of course, since this was before the time of Jesus, this story conflicts with the story cited above of how the lavender plant got its scent (but these are myths after all!). The Romans believed that asps (snakes) lived under lavender bushes and the asp that killed Cleopatra is said to have been found under one of her lavender plants. Maude Grieve, in A Modern Herbal, quotes a Dr. Fernie as saying that lavender was formerly believed to be the “habitual abode of snakes”.
Lavender has been used as a “witch’s herb” for many centuries. It is said to protect against evil eye, evil spirits and ghosts. In the esoteric texts of the Middle Ages it was said to be ruled by Jupiter, although some modern Wiccans place it under Mercury. Paul Beyerl, author of the well known Wiccan reference A Compendium of Herbal Magic, identifies it as an herb with associations to Saturn as well as Mercury and the sign of Virgo. (Beyerl, P. A Compendium of Herbal Magic, Phoenix Publishing, Inc., 1998, p. 219.
In the mythology of Greece, Lavandula stoechas was said to be one of the plants found in the Garden of Hecate. Hecate is a complex mythological character, said to be the immortal daughter of a Titan, who Zeus worshipped above all others and to whom he gave a part of the sky, the earth and the underworld so that she could be effective in each of those realms. She has been honored as a representation of the three fold goddess, manifesting in her various forms as Hecate, Artemis, and Selene. Persephone, the wife of Pluto, was also often considered to be a manifestation of Hecate.
In modern ritual use lavender is considered primarily an herbe of fertility, love, protection and purification, and visionary abilities. It has very old uses in divining the identity of one’s true love and is still used in this way. It is also used in handfasting and marriage rituals, and for smudging homes and aspurging magical circles and ritual spaces. Its use as a visionary herbe may stem from its ancient association with Hecate and her status as an archetype of shamanic abilities. Lavender is used in rituals to invoke Hecate, Jupiter, Saturn or Mercury. Paul Beyerl identifies it as an herbe to use for magical assistance in bringing any goal into manifestation.
PARTS USED: The essential oil is distilled from the flower stalks and flowers. The best quality oil is distilled from just the flowers which are stripped from the stalks. In herbal medicine, the fresh or dried flowers are used in infusions, tinctures, or macerated oils. The fresh or dried flowers are also used in cooking and impart a delicious, distinctive flavor to cookies, sauces, and other dishes.
BUYING PRECAUTIONS AND ADVICE: Lavender oil is frequently adulterated and even among unadulterated oils there is wide variation in quality so it’s important to deal only with companies that specialize in supplying therapeutic quality oils and to consider the country of origin. Lavender grown in America is often nicely fragrant and can be used for fragrancing products but it will not have the therapeutic properties of a French or even an English or Bulgarian lavender. Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia), which is more plentiful and therefore cheaper, is often passed off as “lavender”; this mistake can be avoided by looking for the botanical name.
Between 1960 and 1992, the French production of lavender decreased from about 150 tons to 25 tons a year. Because the lavender industry provided the main employment for people living in many areas, the French government took steps to revive it. They introduced “improved” varieties of lavender that were selected for greater vigor and higher yields of essential oil, which could be grown at lower altitudes, and which could be propagated by cuttings. These plants produce a good essential oil but it is not as good as the oil produced by the “original” wild plants. The best essential oil comes from the wild type lavender, which can be propagated only by seed and is grown only at the higher altitudes. This is called “fine” lavender. The fine lavender that is grown in some of the areas around Vaucluse, Drome, and Haute-Alpes that are above 2600 feet is given an official mark of quality by the French government. This mark is called the Appellation d’orgine Controlee (AOC). There is a maximum annual output of 25 tons of essential oil with this designation. This essential oil is not available from regular commercial retailers in the US and must be sought from small companies; it’s hard to find and very expensive. Other fine lavenders which come from the same region but do not carry the AOC award are a little cheaper and easier to find: look for High Alpine or “Provence” lavenders from France.
HARVESTING AND EXTRACTION: Flowers stalks are harvested in full bloom and during the hottest part of the day. The best oils come from flowers that are distilled immediately, with no drying or fermentation since fresh lavender yields more esters. The altitude of the distillery also influences the ester content due to the fact that water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes and a lower distillation temperature captures and preserves esters.
An absolute and concrete of lavender are also produced by solvent extraction for use in perfumery but should not used in aromatherapy.