Did you know that Romans believed that lavender bushes were the home of a poisonous asp viper or that lavender’s scent was considered seductive?
No?! Well, let us tell you this and a few other secrets about lavender that you may not know.
What to expect in this blog:
In this blog post you will learn 8 curious things about the most popular plant in the world - lavender.
We will look into history to break some myths about lavender, explain its value to ancient people and tell some legends about its use.
1. Lavender has often been confused with spikenard in the past and in historical texts.
Lavender belongs to the Lamiaceae plant family. The name comes from the Latin “lavare” which means “to wash”. Ancient Romans believed that if you smell like lavender, then you are clean. This meaning is still relevant to this day and explains why the lavender scent is so endorsed for self-cleaning products such as shampoos, shower gels, facial cleansers and soaps.
There are various species of lavender. Lavandula latifolia, Lavandula angustifolia (true lavender regarded as the queen of medicinal plants), Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) and Lavandula stoechas are the most popular lavender species. Lavandula latifolia is also known as spike lavender and it is the one resembling spikenard.
If you look at historical texts, you may see that spikenard could be interpreted as lavender and vice versa. However, spikenard and lavender don’t even belong to the same plant families.
Spikenard or officially Nardostachys jatamansi belongs to the Valeriananceae plant family. This small aromatic herb is a relative of valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and grown in the Himalayas of Nepal, China and India. In history spikenard was referred to as Nard. Ancient texts testify to the use of spikenard by ancient Egyptians. It is also mentioned in the Bible as the herb used for the anointment of Jesus before the last supper.
Perhaps, the confusion between spikenard and lavender comes from the name that the ancient Greeks gave spike lavender. They started calling it Nardus, after the city of Naarda where it was sold, which led to many calling it simply nard for short. As you can see from the photos, spike lavender and spikenard look really different, so there is no chance in confusing them by their looks.
2. Lavender or Asarum? Let’s ask the ancient Romans.
Romans had their own name for lavender – Asarum. This means essentially wild spikenard in English. The name is related to their belief that the very poisonous asp viper lived among lavender, therefore, the plant must be approached cautiously. Some believe that lavender growers from these times created this fiction to increase the price of this special plant that cannot be reached easily.
3. Thutankhamun’s tomb was sealed with lavender.
Lavender was used by Egyptians in the mummification process to perfume the corpses. In 1922 archaeologists discovered the fragrance of lavender that had remained in the 3,000 years old Tutankhamun’ tomb. Perfume has always been a symbol of status and wealth. Back then perfumes, oils and fragrances played a key role in the mummification process of the body because it denoted what status the person held in their life. The pleasant smell was equal to holiness and ensured that the person will be welcomed properly into the afterlife.
4. Lavender as a shield against evil spirits
Earlier times’ Christians believed that lavender keeps evil away, that’s why then hung a cross of lavender over their doors. Lavender has won a reputation as a talisman against evil making it popular on festivals such as St. John’s Day Festival. Today, scientific research proves that lavender indeed keeps us from the evil but the one inside us because it relaxes the mind. Lavender calms the nerves and helps people handle stress.
5. Lavender fights Cholera and Plague?
In the 16th century in France it was believed that hose who were able to perfume themselves with lavender escaped the cholera. In the 17th century during the Great Plague in London, people would fasten some lavender flowers around their wrists to protect themselves against the deadly disease. The reason why lavender protects against the plague is because it is a natural bug repellent which drives away the fleas that carry the disease. Grave robbers were known to have used a concoction with lavender after finishing their dirty work which had stopped them from contracting the disease. Bunches of lavender were spread in the streets to mask the smell of death. Today, we put lavender sachets in our closets to protect our clothes from moths and use lavender essential oil in a diffuser to refresh the air in our homes.
Plague Doctor Costume
The costume worn by plague doctors was intended to protect them from diseases that spread in the air.
The bird-like beak mask was filled with strong smelling herbs like lavender. The purpose of this mask was to keep away bad smells which were thought to spread the disease. They were called
"pestilential miasma," or disease-ridden air coming directly from the patient.
6. The royal European herb lavender
Charles VI of France was inseparable from his lavender-filled pillows. The lavender scent has a calming effect. It is also proven that lavender helps inducing sleep, relieves stress and reduces anxiety. No wonder why the king could not sleep without his lavender pillows. Queen Elizabeth I of England required fresh lavender flowers to be available every day of the year. Louis XIV bathed in lavender scented water. Queen Victoria was known to have used lavender deodorant. In fact, today lavender oil is a common ingredient of deodorants because of its refreshing, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.
7. Lavender essential oil and WWI
Lavender oil’s anti-septic and anti-inflammatory properties were highly appreciated during the First World War. Lavender essential oil was constantly used in hospitals during the war in order to accelerate the healing of the soldiers’ wounds, to heal burns and clean open cuts.
8. An ancient match between lavender and love
Lavender’ scent was considered also seductive. It is believed that Cleopatra used lavender on her skin to tempt Julius Cesaer and Mark Anthony. In Tudor times, maidens would sip lavender brew on St. Lukes day to discover the identity of their real love.
Although this can be seen as a legend, the connotation between lavender and love can be considered as natural because of all other meanings attached to lavender. Holiness, cleanliness, beauty and wealth are all aspirations for a better life. Love is the last but most important part of the puzzle.
Fast-forward a few of thousand years, lavender is an omnipresent plant. It’s essential oil is used in aromatherapy, in cleaning products, in pharmaceuticals, in perfumes and cosmetics. It is not just a fragrant herb, but a multipurpose product for everyday uses.
Essentia is proud to be cultivating this precious plant in the most sustainable way. Read Our Story
To learn more about how you can incorporate lavender and lavender essential oil in your daily routine, stay tuned for our next blog posts. We are excited to make lavender your favourite plant, too.
Sources: Lavender: How to grow and use the fragrant herb by Ellen Spector Platt; Lavender: The Great Nard Controversy by David Taliesin