I LOVE LAVENDER! We hear this a lot as customers peruse all things “lavender” that we make and sell, from our simple & sweet Lavender Bar Soap to our rich Earth Mamma Perfume with the unmistakable floral presence of French Lavender essential oil. Lavender is well-liked and recognizable and popular in body care, culinary and wellness products. And common knowledge and personal experiences tell us why. How often have we heard people talk about lavender helping them sleep? Or lavender helping soothe skin ailments?
What common knowledge, however, is not telling us is that lavender is more than a simple, single herb that we grow, harvest and enjoy. For one, there are upwards of 40 (known) species of lavender. There might be more! The more I read and learn about lavender subgenuses AND subspecies AND varieties AND hybrids AND cultivars tells me that there’s a lot going on with this seemingly simple flowering shrub.
Lavandula is a genus within Lamiaceae casually known as “the mint family” and formerly known as Labiatae from the Latin for lip, as the flower petals of this family’s plants appear to form upper and lower lips. As for the origin of Lavandula and Lavender, there’s a little debate. Most believe it originates from the Latin lavare (to wash). Makes sense, right, if you remember your 14th-century literature. A “lauender” or “lavender” was a term coined for a laundress as quoted in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (1358):
Envie ys lavendere of the court alway,/For she ne parteth neither nyght ne day/Out of the house of Cesar—thus seith Dante./Whoso that gooth, algate she wol not wante.
Envye (I preye to God yeve hire mischaunce!)/Is lavender in the grete court alway./For she ne parteth, neither night ne day,/Out of the hous of Cesar; this seith Dante; Who-so that goth, alwey she moot [nat] wante.
Envy (I pray to God give her misfortune!) is laundress [washes the dirty linen] in the great court always, for she never departs, neither night nor day, out of the house of Caesar, this says Dante.* Whoever [comes or] goes, always she not want [i.e., lack things to be envious of].
[In other words: Stuff happens in the royal court. People come and go. People gossip. People are falsely accused (or are they?) Envy, personified as a washer-woman, cleans the “dirty sheets”—and she can’t be escaped. The woman is always there and knows everything and gloats because the stories just write themselves! And people get made and jealous and confused and consumed by it – always!]
But what if I told you that lavender really had nothing to do with bathing or washing? And that the term Lavandula most likely derived from the Middle English Lavendre, which in turn derived from the Medieval Latin Lavendula also spelled Livendula or Livendula? This brings us to the camp of those who believe the term derived from the Latin adjective livens**which means “blueish” and
wait for it…
Seeing as I am opening a Pandora’s box of literary proportions, I’ll sharply change course and list some historical uses and notes. But even these come with a word of warning: Because lavender and its plant-world kin are far and wide (as mentioned above) and many are very similar upon initial scrutiny, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to pinpoint the historical occurrences of “true” lavender (because there is such a thing) as we thumb through textual references. Further, it’s likely that what we think as in the genus Lavandula (which I will now abbreviate as L.) dwells in a differing genus or family.
Emulating the ancient Egyptians who set quite an example when it came to aromatics***, the Greeks practiced oil infusions with herbs and botanicals. And lavender’s scent was choice for anointing and for perfume making. The Greek lavender was called nardus, after the Syrian city Naardus. It was likely L. latifolia, which we know today as spike lavender.
The Ancient Romans further employed nard for its scent and an array of medicinal uses, the first of these were documented by a Greek physician Dioscorides. He worked for the Roman military under Nero and wrote of lavender in his De Materia Medica, citing external benefits (treatment of wounds) and internal (relief of indigestion, headaches and sore throats). Note that these folks weren’t using essential oils, rather green or dry herbs and infused oil.
A little later, Pliny the Elder wrote more in his encyclopedic Natural History, and in doing so was the first to pen stoechas, as in L. stoechas or Spanish lavender. Book XIV: The Natural History of the Fruit Trees, Chapter 19: Sixty-six Varieties of Artificial Wine, briefly lists stoechas as an herb that produces wine—here an extract for medicinal uses (but for certainly rendering one incapacitated, as well). Book XXVII: A Description of Plants, and of the Remedies Derived from Them, Chapter 107: The Stoechas: Three Remedies, reads as follows:
The stœchas grows only in the islands of that name [this is a reference to the Stoechades, four islands off of France in the Mediterranean Sea]. It is an odoriferous plant, with leaves like those of hyssop, and of a bitter taste. Taken in drink, it promotes menstruation, and allays pains in the chest. It forms an ingredient, also, in antidotes.
There you have it. The actual references to Lavender in Pliny’s text. But what about… Book XII, Chapter 26 Nard: The Twelve Varieties of the Plant?!? It’s not lavender. It’s referring to spikenard (which the Internet seems to believe is lavender) and other plants. I’ll just leave it at that.****
Now that I’m on the verge of tearing my hair out (maybe I should sniff some lavender oil—it’s supposed to calm!), I’ll move onto a couple of things that aren’t so distant and fuzzy about this oil of this herb we love so much.
European lavender oil—no matter the source—is primarily composed of linalyl acetate and linalool and a basic search on these compounds will tell you that both are found in many flowers and spices. There is a marked difference, however, among the aroma of lavender oils depending on the location and altitude in which the plant material is grown—and in which it is distilled! I’ve lined up samples of different oils—and while I can’t provide smell-a-vision or sniffer-net here, you’ll have to trust me on this one: Not all lavender oils are the same. Some are green, some are floral, some are herbaceous, some are sweet, some are soft, some are camphoraceous, some are acrid.
And some are FAKE.
Why is it so important, the purity of oil? For one, nobody wants to be tricked. But two, real lavender and lavender oil because of the plant’s history as being a “healing” herb has been the subject of -real- medical and chemical experiments, which study the herb and oil for its antimicrobial, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory effects, as well as it’s efficacy as a sedative.
Take a look around the published medical journals at the National Institute’s of Health’s website, and get reading if you’re interested in real data and real science, beyond the anecdotal “evidence” all over the web. The power of pure plant and pure oils—straight from nature!—is very remarkable. And I say this as a skeptic!
A search also for lavender + repellent on the NIH’s website produces many studies on the efficacy of the oil in deterring various insects, and they have shown that it is the linalool compound partly responsible for this. And it is the reason we use a good amount of lavender oil in our Jitterbug spray and lotion bar.
As for our other products, we like it because it smells good and it blends well with everything—mint, cedar, patchouli, citrus. In fact I’m not sure what it doesn’t blend well with. I don’t like to make any claims other than that, but fans of the herb and oil believe it is calming and centering and has a myriad of therapeutic properties. Whatever your reason for being on team I LOVE LAVENDER, know that you are not alone, and that we’ve got lots of smell-goods with lavender oil and lavender blends just for you!
*This is a reference to Inferno xiii: 64: Chaucer’s Envy is I guess you could say is, ahem, cleaner than Dante’s. Mr. Alighieri doesn’t shy away from censure. Envy is meretrice (a harlot!) in his Inferno. There you have it. My blog has stepped into PG-13 territory.
**Other related Latin words: lividus, adj., discolored by bruises, envious/spiteful, livid, slate-colored lividulus, adj., rather envious livesco, vb intr.,to become black and blue, to become envious, to become livid liveo, livere, vb., be envious, be livid or discolored livor, livoris, n., bluish discoloration, envy/spite
***Lavender-infused oil was used in embalming by the Ancient Egyptians, who also enjoyed it for its aroma. No wait. That’s what the Internet says. It was most likely spikenard, the same spikenard mentioned in the bible and the same spikenard the Romans used in perfumery in nardinum.
**** Plin. XII: 26 talks of “spikenard” (Valeriana jatamansi) and others in the Valarian genus. The term spikenard is traced to India, spike being reflective of the flower’s shape. Similarly, fox-glove is a nard mentioned by Pliny in this chapter (Digitalis purpurea). I can see the connection, confusion – purple-flowering shrubs. Sure. But then there’s mention of the “pseudo nard” which many have thought to mean actual lavender. Nopey nope nope nope. It’s more likely Allium victorialis, a type of wild onion. And one more thing to confuse! Chapter 27: Asarum: Or Foal-Foot. Some (actually many, thanks Internet…) believed the ancient Romans also used asarum as their term for lavender, asarum because the plant was believed to house aspidēs (asps). Nicknamed “foal-foot” because its leaves look like hooves, asarum is actually a type of wild ginger. And I could care less about whether snakes take umbrage in its foliage. What does cause slithers up my spine is the term “aspic oil” which is accepted to mean the essential oil of L. latifolia and aspic is archaic for…yes…asp. Gah!