Lavender oil was used in purification ceremonies in ancient Egypt, it was one of the ingredients in mummification and the herb has been found in tombs and sarcophagi. Through Phoenicia, Greece and the Arab countries, it found its way to the Roman empire. The very word Lavender is derived from the Latin root ”Lavare” (to wash). The aromatic ointment used by Mary Magdalene to anoint the feet of Jesus in the gospel of St Luke was essentially spikenard, which is a form of valerian, but there are scholars who speculate that it could have been the essence of spike lavender (Lavendula latifolia).
When the Great Plague was a scourge across Europe, lavender oil was used as a preventive and the herb itself strewn in houses to ward off infection… Monasteries of mediaeval Europe surrounded themselves with fields of blue lavender, since the colour and scent induced a serene, meditative atmosphere.
The story goes that the French cosmetic scientist Dr. Rene-Maurice Gattefosse was led to research the healing properties of plant essential oils after a serious laboratory accident. He dipped his burned hands in a vat of pure lavender oil and they began to heal miraculously. But in actual fact, Dr Gattefosse and his team of chemists were researching the antiseptic and curative powers of various essential oils when this incident took place in 1910. This only served to confirm his findings, which he later published in his pioneering 1937 work “Aromatherapie”.
When the Black Death and cholera were regular epidemics in the 17th century, the homes and graves of victims were regularly ransacked by a band of thieves who managed to escape the diseases despite such risky behaviour. When caught, they were spared the gallows, if they would divulge their secret. This was a preparation which came to be known as “Four Thieves Vinegar”. The grave robbers were said to come from a family of perfumers. Though some say that the recipe belonged to the mother of one of the men who was a midwife and herbalist, who wildcrafted her herbs. There are various versions which survive to this day, which include herbs like hyssop, rue, rosemary, sage, peppermint and wormwood steeped in vinegar. But the ingredients common to every recipe were lavender and garlic, powerful antivirals and antibacterials both. They either rubbed it over themselves or took it internally as a preventive.
Did You Know?
- As an herb, lavender has been in documented use for over 2,500 years!
- In ancient times lavender was used for mummification and perfume by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and peoples of Arabia.
- In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, washerwomen were known as "lavenders" and they used lavender to scent drawers and dried the laundry on lavender bushes.
- Charles VI of France demanded lavender filled pillows wherever he went!
- Queen Victoria used a lavender deodorant...
Lavender oil is indispensable in your first aid cabinet, where it ought to be stored away from light and heat.
Repeated success stories with lavender oil (when there has been no reddening or blistering of the skin) after burns and scalds from boiling water, hot oil or steam, are legion. Lavender oil may be used neat (without blending with a base oil) over burn injuries. Hold the burn or scald under cool running water, dab dry, and smooth lavender essential oil all over it. If the burn is serious repeat the treatment periodically and keep it covered with a gauze bandage till you can show it to your doctor. There are recipes which blend aloe vera gel or St. Johns wort oil with lavender oil, but lavender works like a charm on its own.
Lavender was an integral part of old fashioned infirmarian’s gardens. The 12th century Benedictine abbess St. Hildegard von Bingen had a recipe for migraine that involved making a tincture of lavender with vodka or brandy to rub over the temples. Lavender was part of her healing repertoire in many skin conditions, including scabies.
Lavender has been described as the mother or grandmother of all essential oils since it is able to tackle so many jobs at once. It can cool fevers, soothe insect bites or stings, prevent scarring, be put in facial saunas for acne, heal boils, abscesses and bruises, and be used to reduce inflammation. It may also be used in a shallow bath to relieve the burning symptoms of cystitis (five to ten drops of lavender in a sitz bath, basin or tub of water you can sit in).
Research indicates lavender oil fragrance has a beneficial effect on sleep, but the effects are mild. Lavender oil appears to have anti-fungal activity.
Mind and Spirit
Lavender smells so wonderful, while working hard on many different levels. Therapists who work with essential oils for mind, mood and personality disorders use it to support treatments for anxiety, fear, irritability, mood swings, emotional burn out and shock. The nursing profession uses lavender more for its sedative and calming qualities than its anti-infectious ones.
Lavender in a bath just before bedtime would relax tense muscles and create an oasis of peace. A few drops of lavender on your pillow, a sachet of dried lavender or lavender scented sheets were traditionally used to induce a pleasant sleep. For centuries, clothes, especially bed linen used to be given a final rinse in lavender water or hung over lavender bushes to dry. In Keats’ poem, ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, the young girl “slept azure lidded in blanched linen, smooth, lavender’d.”
Serious sleep disturbances may require other essential oils like clary sage or valerian, but ordinary stress is easily treated with lavender.
Since aromatherapy treats the emotions and spirit as well as the body, lavender is one of the oils used to balance the heart ‘chakra’ for compassion and receptiveness.
If you wish to be truly luxurious, a few drops of lavender on a handkerchief added to your washing just before the final tumble dry would impart a subtle, relaxing scent.
Since the qualities of lavender are cool and soothing, it is especially valuable for inflamed skin or overheating. 15 drops of lavender oil added to half a litre of mineral water and kept chilled in the fridge is a good antidote for sunburn. Splash this over your face and other exposed areas when you come in out of the sun. It’s a good toner for oily skin as well. Massaging your feet, the back of your neck and temples with a few drops of lavender in your body lotion or cream (preferably unscented) is also extremely cooling.
It’s also useful as a hair rinse, especially for dark hair, reduces oiliness and flaky scalp if added to a base oil for scalp massage (a mix of three drops each of lavender, rosemary, and carrot seed in a quarter cup of olive oil is a good recipe).
Lavender is still one of the most popular fragrances in perfumes, soaps, furniture polishes, potpourri and other household products. The scent evokes freshness, delicacy and old fashioned innocence. Honey gathered from fields “where bees have danced over lavender” is exquisitely scented. Dried lavender will help keep moths away from your stored clothes and lavender water in your steam iron will freshen your laundry. A wet wipe with lavender water will not only soothe nervous pets but also keep away fleas and ticks.
People do add sprigs of lavender to scent their sugar, bake cookies and make lavender flavoured desserts and teas. But if you use lavender in food, be sure that it has been taken from an unpolluted, organically grown source.
Specialty Lavender Places
There are several cultivated varieties, a good selection of which may be seen in the Duchess border at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, but the two which are commonly distilled for essential oil are Lavandula officinalis and Lavandula augustifolia. Both work equally well therapeutically. In England there have long been lavender fields in Hertfordshire and Norfolk, and evidence of its trade is seen in place names like Lavender Hill in London. The lavender fields of Provence, especially near the perfumeries of Grasse, are celebrated.
Although the least toxic of oils, it ought nevertheless to be avoided in the first trimester of pregnancy and along with preparations containing iron or iodine. Also use with caution if you have low blood pressure.
There are growing concerns that lavender oil has the potential for irritant or allergenic skin reactions. According to some studies lavender oil is cytotoxic to human skin cells in vitro (endothelial cells and fibroblasts) at a concentration of 0.25% (v/v) in all cell types tested (HMEC-1, HNDF and 153BR).
According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine Lavender oil can mimic the action of female hormone oestrogen and block off male hormones. As a result there is the risk of development of enlarged breasts in boys.
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