(Lavendula vera, D. C.; L. Angustifolia, Moench.; L. spica, Linn.)
Like many of the other herbs discussed on the pages Our Herb Garden, lavender also has a connection to witch-craft and sorcery. Lavender was believed by the Tuscans to counteract the evil eye.
Lavender Folklore: Four Thieves Vinegar
Lavender also has been linked to the plague. For this bit of lavender folklore we have several conflicting versions but at some level when combined may actually make sense. Whether it is called Marseilles Vinegar, Four Thieves Vinegar or was invented by Richard Forthave, the concoction was said to protect people from catching the plague. While the recipe varied from location to location, lavender was a common ingredient – perhaps to mask the scent of less-pleasing ingredients like garlic and vinegar.
The folklore behind the name Four Thieves Vinegar has two different versions. One has four thieves upon capture admitting the brew allowed them to burgle the houses of plague victims without catching the dread disease themselves. Upon capture, they offered to trade their recipe in exchange for leniency. In a slightly different version of the story, the thieves had been captured prior to the plague outbreak. They invented the vinegar when they were sentenced to bury plague victims.
Lavender Folklore: Love & Protection
In Spain and Portugal, lavender was included in bonfires on St. John’s Day to help ward off evil spirits.
On St. Luke’s Day in the 14 and 1500s, young maidens sipped lavender in hopes that they would be granted a dream in which they would see their true love. Lavender tucked under the pillows of young men was thought to encourage them to ask for a lady’s hand in marriage. And completing the circle, lavender was used by wives to ensure their “husband’s marital passion.”
On the other hand, ladies of the unmaidenly sort, would wear lavender to attract customers. It would also protect them from cruelty and violence.
And, in yet another contradiction, lavender folklore also claims that if lavender is used in combination with rosemary it will preserve virtue.
Lavender Folklore: Medicinal Uses
One early work suggests steeping and draining a hank of cotton in the oil of lavender and hanging the dry cotton around the neck to ward off bugs and “other noxious insects” from attacking. Some folk medicine sources identified those bugs specifically as worms.
Oleum spicoe was created by mixing lavender oil with turpentine or spirit of wine and used for the curing of old sprains and stiff joints. Lavender oil, preferably made from the flowering tops as opposed to the stalks, was also used to stimulate paralyzed limbs.
Taken orally, lavender oil was credited with being a restorative and tonic against faintness, palpitations of a nervous sort, weak giddiness, spasms and colic. It was used to increase appetite, raise the spirits and dispel flatulence. It was also used for hysteria, palsy and similar disorders and acted as a powerful stimulant.
Gerard, author of Herball or Historie of Plants(1597), mentions using distilled water from the lavender flowers or oil made from the flowers and olive oil to treat palsy with the statement that doing so will “profiteth them much.”
Macerating the oils of lavender and rosemary, with cinnamon bark, nutmeg, and red sandal wood in wine for seven days produces tincture of red lavender which was once a popular medicinal cordial. “Palsy Drops”, a once well-known compound, was made from lavender with rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, red sandal wood, and spirits.
Lavandula latifolia essential oil is thought to promote the growth of hair when “weakly” or falling off.
Rubbing a few drops of lavender oil on the temples is said to cure nervous headaches. Tea brewed from lavender flowers was often prescribed as a treatment for headaches from fatigue or weakness. Mediterraneans were said to have prevented headaches from the sun by weaving lavender into their hats.
However, over-consumption of lavender oil from the tops can cause griping and colic. If the dose is substantial, it can cause a narcotic poisoning which causes death by convulsions.
One early British work mentions that the lions and tigers in the Zoological gardens “powerfully affected by the smell of lavender water and become docile under its influence.”
The antiseptic powers of lavender were well known and bundles of the dried herb would be burnt and left to smolder as a fumigant in a sickroom. (No date was given for this practice but the original source implies that the practice continues in the present day.)
Modern Medicinal Uses of Lavender.
Researchers are finding many of the medicinal attributes that have been paired with lavender throughout the centuries to be valid. Essential lavender oil has been scientifically found to be a powerful antiseptic that can kill typhoid, diphtheria, streptococcus, and pneumococus bacteria. And it is actually an effective antidote for some snake venom.
There are several companies marketing their versions of Four Thieves Vinegar in products like anti-bacterial lotions.
There are however some concerns that lavender oil should not be consumed by pregnant or breastfeeding women. It is thought the oil harms skin cells in vitro. Several recent studies have offered conflicting results and it is probably safer to just assume it is not safe than risk the health of your child.
Most of the remaining of the earlier medical uses lavender and lavender oil also appear to be founded upon fact with perhaps the notable exception of it being protection against the evil eye – that remains unproven.
Additional Lavender Information.
A yummy use for lavender buds is our Lavender Cookie Recipe.