Legendary Lavender By Ellary Allis
Lavender is the Florence Nightingale of herbs. Nicknamed “The Lady with the Lamp,” Nightingale was the only nurse allowed in the hospital wards at Scutari after 8 pm where she tirelessly tended to wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, casting shadows down the hallways with the Turkish lamp she carried for light. Lavender, like Nightingale, often makes the night rounds, soothing restless souls and nurturing the sleepless with a deft hand. The historical narrative around Florence Nightingale features her in her role as “ministering angel,” but Nightingale’s social impact was broader than her formidable nursing skills: she was also a writer, an outspoken agitator for social reform in Britain, and a statistician. Lavender, too, is a polymath. Lavender has long been placed under pillows to facilitate sleep and extracted for essential oils to anoint pressure points and enhance baths.
It tends to conjure an immediate association with relaxation, but it’s much more than a mild sedative: it’s an antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, shows wide-spectrum antifungal activity, is useful for digestion, is an effective insect repellent, soothes headaches, toothaches, sprains and sores, and helps with postoperative pain relief.
Lavender is a genus of 39 flowering plants in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. The most widely cultivated species, and the one most commonly found throughout North America, is Lavandula angustifolia, a shrubby perennial native to the western Mediterranean. Cultivating Lavandula angustifolia successfully requires creating conditions that mimic the rocky, alkaline soil and copious sunlight of its region of origin. Lavender is a tough plant, but poor drainage will weaken it, so if you’re growing lavender in a moist climate, using a raised bed or mound can help solve the issue. Once established, the plants are drought-tolerant, non-invasive, and evergreen or semi-evergreen. All plant parts are strongly aromatic, and lavender will attract beneficial insects and butterflies.
The recorded use of lavender dates back more than 2,500 years. Ancient Egyptians and Phoenicians used lavender for embalming and mummification, for perfume, and in cooking. Apropos of it’s linguistic origin (the Latin word lavare, which means “to wash”), lavender flowers were used to scent baths in ancient Rome, presaging the ubiquitous lavender scented bath products that have become a staple of the personal care industry. Lavender was a known disinfectant and air freshener in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, when it was used as a strewing herb for scattering on the stone floors of manors and castles. In 1652, English astrologer-physician Nicholas Culpeper wrote of lavender: “Mercury owns the herb and carries his effects very potently.” According to Culpeper, Mercury’s herbs are carminative herbs that smooth flow through the digestive tract, ease respiratory function, and balance out kidney function and the adrenal glands. In 17th century London, lavender bunches were tied to wrists and waists to ward off the Black Death. Because the Plague was transmitted by fleas and lavender is a reliable insect repellent, this practice may well have saved lives.
Lavender has a long and illustrious history in the art of seduction. Legend has it that the balsamic scent of lavender helped Cleopatra entice Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. On St. Luke’s day in Tudor times, young girls would sip a lavender-infused drink for romantic divination while reciting: “St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me, In my dreams, let my true love see me.” Alpine folklore had newlyweds tucking lavender bundles under their mattresses to ignite passion. Recent research corroborates this ancient knowledge about lavender’s aphrodisiacal scent; in a study on odors and male sexual response conducted by the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Center, it was a blend of pumpkin and lavender that produced the most pronounced increase in male arousal.
Master herbalist Greta de la Montagne says that lavender is her desert island medicinal; in the event that she’s ever shipped off to a desert island, lavender essential oil will be the first product to go into her backpack. Lavender nurses the wounded with grace, savvy, and efficacy. And lavender, like Florence Nightingale in her day, has range. I invite you to explore the versatility of lavender.
Photo by Ellary Allis
Below is a recipe for lavender bath oil, first published in the 17th century.
Lavender Bath Oil:
Add 1/2 cup of each of the following herbs to a large saucepan: dried lavender, wormwood, peppermint, thyme, bay and lemon balm.
Add 2 litres of water then bring to the boil. Boil for 10 minutes then remove from heat and allow to cool.
Strain the liquid through a double layer of cloth then discard the herbs.
Add a dash of brandy and bottle the liquid. To use, add a small splash to bath water.
Article written by Ellary Allis, Photo Credits Deirdre Powell and Ellary Allis.
© Undergroundwriter 2014