History of Lavender – Name Origins
(Lavendula vera, D. C.; L. Angustifolia, Moench.; L. spica, Linn.)
Would a rose be called by any other name were it not so sweet? Lavender history tells us that indeed, where it not so sweet smelling it would probably not carry the name that it does.
The lavender shrub is named from the Latin lavare, to wash because the ancient Romans and Carthaginians used lavender in their bath water as a perfume as well as for its therapeutic properties. Burnett put it more poetically – the ancients “employed the flowers and the leaves to aromatize their baths, and to give a sweet scent to the water in which they washed.”
Turner in his work A New Herball from the mid-1500s, however, provides the explanation that the name originated from lavare “Because wyse men founde by experience that it was good to washe mennes heades with, which had any deceses therein, or wieknes that come of a colde cause…” Apparently claiming that lavender was effective against treating mental disease.
Lavender History – in the Ancient World.
The Greeks called lavender Nardus, referring to a city in Syria called Naarda, where lavender was often sold. Many simply called the plant Nard. Mary Magdeline was said to have broken open an alabaster box of spikenard and used the oil to anoint the feet of Jesus but it remains unclear if the spikenard of the Bible was actually the same lavender we love for its sweet scent and lovely blooms.
3,000 years after King Tutankhamen’s tomb was sealed, the lavender found within when it was opened in 1922, still retained some of its fragrance.
During Pliny’s time (23 – 79 AD), blossoms of nardus sold for 100 Roman denarii per pound, a quite princely sum equaling the cost of ten pounds of bread or ten litres of cheap wine.
The Romans, had their own name for lavender – Asarum, essentially wild spikenard in English. That name evolved from their belief that the much-poisonous asp viper lived among lavender and that the plant must therefore be approached with great caution.
Spikenard and nard referred to a variety of plants but most believe the word would later become most closely tied to Ginger.
Lavender History – Cultivation in England
In the 12th Century, in the North of England, washerwomen were called Lavenders due to the custom of scenting newly washed linen with the herb. Lavender was thought to keep the linens moth and insect-free. The practice is the origin of the colloquialism “to be laid up in lavender”.
Further references are made to the presence of lavender in 12th Century England in the Book of the Physicians of Myddvai where it was referred to as ‘Llafant’ and in the Feate of Gardening where it was referred to as ‘Lavyndull’.
Lavender has been cultivated in England since the mid-1500s and has been grown throughout the centuries since for commercial purposes. Many of the reference materials used in writing our lavender history, mention England, particularly Surrey, as a location most suitable for growing lavender. Several publications on lavender history, dating from the late 1800s, mention that lavender oil from Britain could garner market prices as much as 4-6 times greater than the oil produced from plants grown in France and elsewhere on the continent. (Our sources disagree as to the price factor, but the essence is clear that the British oil was deemed far more desirable than oil from lavender grown elsewhere.) The English lavender varieties are said to produce the loveliest fragrance of all of the available varieties grown today.
Lavender was highly prized by English monarchs. Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) was said to have been partial to a conserve made with lavender flowers – lavender buds also make delightful lavender cookies. During a time that lavender was primarily grown for its medicinal and aromatic qualities, Queen Henrietta Maria (1609 – 1669), wife of Charles I, preferred a tender white variety of lavender for the beauty of the plant itself. Though by 1766, John Reid in The Scots Gardener discusses the merits of using lavender as an edging for large garden walks.
Lavender history also includes Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). He mentioned lavender in Winter’s Tale and used lavender and other flowers to denote middle age. We’re not sure if the metaphor of lavender to denote middle age was the invention of the great playwright or commonplace during his lifetime.
In 17th Century Ireland, lavender was often used for lawns and was kept trimmed to a few inches tall through the use of a scythe. Sir Arthur Rawdon, famous for his gardens at Moira Castle in County Down was said to have a lawn of lavender that covered more than an acre back in 1683. Sadly, all that remains today of the gardens and castle are a few of the castle’s foundations.
In The Art of Perfumery, published in 1857, the author claims that the best oil is obtained from the lavender grown at Mitcham, in Surrey. “All the inferior descriptions of oil of lavender are used for perfuming soaps and greases.” The superior oil from Mitcham, on the other hand is reserved for what was referred to as lavender water.
Historical Uses of Lavender Outside of England.
Prior to the two world wars of the 20th Century, the ‘lavender still’ would visit small towns and remote mountain villages in Europe to distill their lavender into the essential oil. Peasants in France would bring their loads of harvested lavender to the market-place to be distilled. During harvest time, the usual disagreeable community smells of drains and garlic would be supplanted by the aroma of the distillation of the fragrant herb.
In Africa, at one time (no date was provided), lavender was considered indispensable. A quotation in their native tongue when translated means, “where the Libyans make use of it for washing their bodies, nor ever leave their houses of a morning until purified by a decoction of the plant.”
Additional Lavender Information.
The story of the history of lavender continues with our article on Folklore and Medicinal Uses of Lavender. Our Herb Garden also has guides on Growing lavender and Lavender Companion Planting. And, as an added treat, we also have a yummy Lavender Cookies Recipe.