By Audrey Stallsmith
As Rosemary is to the Spirit, so Lavender is to the Soul.
Lavender is one of my favorite fragrances. That's only appropriate, since it is known as the old maid's herb! The scent was supposed to encourage chastity.
In olden days when a woman felt faint or hysterical, she was always sent off to lie in a darkened room with a lavender-saturated handkerchief over her face. This use of the herb was documented as early as 1597 in Gerard's Herball. "The distilled water of Lavender smelt unto, or the temples and forehead bathed therewith, is a refreshing to them that have the Catalepsy, a light migram, and to them that have the falling sicknesse, and that used to swoune much."
Of course, the women prone to "swounes" in old novels were usually upper class. Poorer females didn't have time for such nervous palpitations!
Lavender has not always been a female scent, however. It was popular in the Roman baths, where it was called asarum. It derived its later name from the Latin lavare--"to wash," or, perhaps, from the Spanish lavendera--"a laundress."
The variety employed was probably the French lavender stoechas which, some say, smells more like rosemary than lavender. It grew so abundantly on the Hyeres islands that the Romans called them the Stoechades. Although it seems that stoechas was originally known as French lavender and dentata as Spanish, they often get switched around these days!
Later used for strewing floors on festive occasions and in bonfires on St. John's Day, lavender stoechas was also known as sticadore and, as such, was one of the ingredients of the Four Thieves Vinegar. According to legend, this vinegar--which included a mix of antiseptic herbs like rosemary, sage, wormwood, rue, mint, and garlic--allowed certain scoundrels to rob victims of the bubonic plague with impunity.
The Greeks knew lavender as nardus or nard after a Syrian city called Naarda. It seems possible, therefore, that the spikenard with which a woman anointed Christ, could have been some form of lavender oil. (It is more likely however that it was nardostachys jatamansi.)
"Lavender spike," Gerard writes, "hath many stiffe branches of a wooddy substance. . .set with many long hoarie leaves. . .of a strong smell, and yet pleasant enough to such as do love strong savors. The floures grow at the top of the branches, spike fashion, of a blew colour."
He may have been describing lavender spica, which came to be known as "lesser lavender," since it was considered inferior to lavender vera. Hybrids produced by the crossing of vera and spica had an even less flattering appellation, "bastard lavender."
Although lavender was occasionally used to flavor food, its primary use remains to scent and to soothe. Modern aromatherapy tests have proved that the perfume does have a sedative effect. So the old custom of placing lavender sachets in the linen closet had a double benefit. The odor permeating the sheets repelled bugs and lulled insomniacs into dreamland.
It also led to the cliche "laid up in lavender" being used to describe anything placed in careful storage. That phrase eventually came to apply also to persons in hiding or goods in pawn.
Lavender stoechas not only smells like rosemary; its oil was used in much the same way, as a stimulant, an antiseptic for minor wounds, and as a rub for sprains and rheumatic or paralyzed limbs. In small amounts, lavender will also relieve flatulence. But please keep in mind that, in large doses, the oil becomes a narcotic poison.
For such a genteel herb, lavender had a somewhat equivocal reputation. In the Language of Flowers, it stands for distrust. This may derive from an old belief that poisonous snakes made their home in the plant.
Gerard too seems to have had his doubts about lavender, adding to his earlier recommendation, "But when there is abundance of humors, it is not then to be used safely. . .For by using such hot things that fill and stuffe the head, both the disease is made greater, and the sick man also brought into daunger. . ."
Of course, a hint of "daunger" only adds to a lady's allure. And this particular female is still considered to be in a class above the rest!
Lavandula vera image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.