History of usage of Lavandula species

Jo Castle and Maria Lis-Balchin


The term lavender is considered to come from the Latin 'lavando' part of the verb 'lavare' to bathe, the Romans having used many plants to perfume their baths. The Greeks and Romans also referred to lavender as nard, from the Latin Nardus Italica, after the Syrian town Naarda. This was the beginning of much confusion as to which plant was being referred to in classical and medieval times. Lavandula is obvious, however nard and spike can refer to spike lavender or to spikenard (a plant imported from India during the Middle Ages and equally popular then for its aromatic properties). Despite much learned investigation into the identification of lavender in the writings of classical authors; it has remained impossible to unquestionably identify L. vera or L. spica. L. stoechas is, however, distinctly referred to by both Dioscorides and Pliny (Gingins-Lassaraz 1826 in Fluckiger and Hanbury).

An alternative, but less likely explanation from Victorian times connected the name to the Latin 'livere' meaning to be livid or bluish (Festing, 1989).

Historical review of the use of lavender

The classical physicians

Lavender has been used as a healing plant and was first mentioned by Dioscorides (c. 40—90 ad) who found what was probably L. stoechas growing on the islands of Stoechades (now known as Hyeres); this was used in Roman communal baths (Festing, 1989). Dioscorides attributed to the plant some laxative and invigorating properties and advised its use in a tea-like preparation for chest complaints (Festing, 1989). The author also recounts that Galen (129-99 ad) added lavender to his list of ancient antidotes for poison and bites and thus Nero's physician used it in anti-poison pills and for uterine disorders. Lavender in wine was taken for snake bites stings, stomach aches, liver, renal and gall disorders, jaundice and dropsy.

Pliny differentiated between L. stoechas and L. vera, the latter was apparently used only for diluting expensive perfumes. Pliny the Elder advocated lavender for bereavement as well as promoting menstruation.

Abbess Hildegard

The Abbess Hildegard (1098-1179) of Bingen near the Rhine in what is now Germany, was the first person in the Middle Ages to clearly distinguish between L. vera and L. spica (Fluckiger and Hanbury, 1885; Throop, 1994):

On Palsy one who is tormented should take galangale, with half as much nutmeg, and half as much Spike lavender as nutmeg, and equal weights of githerut (probably Gith or Black

Cumin) and lovage — but of each one, more than the spike lavender. To these he should add equal weights of female fern and saxifrage (these two together should be equal to the five precious ingredients). Pulverise this. If one is well, he should eat this powder on bread, if ill, he should eat an electuary (soft pill) made form it.

In a chapter on lavender she alluded to its strong odour and many virtues (Throop, 1994: chapter XXXV):

Lavender (Lavandula) is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odour. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die. Its odour clears the eyes (since it posses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs very many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified).

Lavender continued to be used for de-lousing until about 1870s, blotting paper being soaked in the oil and applied to children's heads.

Hildegard also recommends this decoction of lavender for pulmonary congestion, translated from the French (Hertzka and Strehlow, 1994):

To cook lavender of spic (spike) with wine, or if one has no wine, with honey and water, put it in case to cool often, soften the suffering in the liver, and in the lungs and the vapour in the chest (pulmonary congestion), and the wine of lavender I assure you is a science pure and clean'.

Hildegard distinguishes expressly between the 'lavande aspic sauvage' (L. spica) and the noble 'lavande de jardin' (L. vera). Furthermore, in her descriptions of the different types of rest and sleep she states that to prepare the nervous system for sleep, a walk followed by a bath steeped in lavender is beneficial (Hertzka and Strehlow, 1994).

Summary of uses recommended by Hildegard

For palsy (a powder with other ingredients), for head lice, to clear the eyes when smelt, to curb malign spirits and for pulmonary congestion in wine or honey. To ensure a restful nights sleep she recommends a bath with lavender after a walk.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, 'strewing herbs' in churches and houses incorporated lavender. Lavender was used in medicines in medieval Wales and England in conjunction with numerous other herbs, including herb robert, valerian, wormwood, elecampagne, parsley, fennel etc.

A poem of the school of medicine in Salerno around 1020 ad entitled 'Flos Medicinae' (de Renzi) gives the following lines:

Salvia, castoreum, lavandula, primula veris, Nasturtiom, athanas haec sanat paralytica membra (Sage, Beaver gland excretion, lavender, primrose, Nasturtium, are cleansing and soothing for paralytic limbs)

William Turner (1508—68)

He stated that 'because wyse men founde by experience that it was good to washe mennis heades with, which had anye deceses therein'. Indeed Turner was a passionate gardener, creating gardens wherever he was living, he writes of growing 'Stechas or Lavender Gentle (L. Stoechas), a variety not seen in England, growing in my gardens in Germany'. And 'Stechas groweth in the islands of France over against Marseilles which are called Stechades, whereupon the herb got its name'.

John Gerard (1545-1612)

First, he writes of common lavender — L. flore caeruleo (or most probably L. vera) the drawing of which has round tips to the leaves and slightly drooping flowers. White floured lavender -L. flore albo. And lavender spike or in Spanish spica — Lavandula minor sive spicae which he describes as having pointed tips to the leaves and a more upright habit (if lavender can ever be described as upright in its behaviour!). He then says that:

We have growing in our English gardens and being of a small kind, altogether lesser than the other, and the floures of a more purple colour and grow much less and shorter heads, yet have a far more grateful smell. The leaves are less and whiter than those of the ordinary sort. This doth grow in plentie in His Majesties Private Garden at Whitehall. And this is called Spike, with out addition and sometimes Lavender Spike and this by distillation is made that vulgarly known and used oile which is termed Oleum Spicae, or oile of Spike. In Spain and Languedocke in France, most of the mountains and desert fields, are as it were covered over with Lavender. In these cold countries they are planted in gardens.

He reminds us that some think it is the sweet herb cassia which Virgil mentions, but states wisely that here is another type of cassia sold in the shops called cassia lignea, and also cassia nigra or cassia fistula.

He writes: 'Lavender is hot and dry in the third degree, and of a thin substance, consisting mainly of airy and spiritual parts, good for cold diseases of the head'. He advocates: 'The distilled water of lavender smelt unto, or the temples and forehead bathed therewith is refreshing for those with Catalepsie, a light Megrim (migraine) and to them that have the falling sickness (epilepsy) and that swoune (faint) much'. And continues, 'the floures of lavender picked from the knaps, I mean the blew part and not the huske, mixed with Cinnamon, Nutmegs and Cloves made into a pouder and given to drinke in distilled lavender water, doth help the panting and passions of the heart; prevaleth against giddiness or swimming of the braine, and palsie'. In other words a decoction of lavender distillate with powdered lavender flowers, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, is beneficial to what may be panic attacks, palpitations, giddiness and the shakes associated with Parkinson's.

He cautions against taking lavender 'when there is an abundance of humours' and he advised against the use of lavender 'taken in distilled wine: in which such kinds of herbes, floures, or seeds, and certain spices are infused and steeped, though most men do so rashly'. He continues '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 danger'. This is probably referring to the distillation of herbs, spices and wines, which produced very potent spirits in the stills which were abundant in big households of the period.

Gerard also suggests that a conserve made with lavender flowers and sugar is also very good for the diseases previously mentioned, taken in the amount of a bean in the morning fasting and advises washing those with the palsie with either lavender distillate or lavender oil and olive oil.

Gerard also admonishes the 'unlearned physitians and diverse and over-rash Apothecaries and other foolish women' who treat people with such mixtures regardless of their condition, for example, those with 'Catuche or Catalepsis with a fever; to whom they can give nothing worse, seeing those things do very much hurt and often times bring death it selfe'.

L. stoechas after Gerard

He describes French lavender or sticados also known as stickedoue and sticadoue, which has spiky heads out of which the flowers grow, Gerard calls this 'Stoechas sive spica hortulana'. Jagged sticados or lavender with the divided leaf he calls 'Stoechas multisida'. Toothed sticados, with nicked or toothed leaves like a saw for which he gives 'Stoechas folio serrato', and naked stoechas have long naked stems on which the spike of flowers grow, this he calls 'Stoechas sum-mis cauliculus nudis'. He gives clear descriptions of each variety and again these are illustrated, but his Latin names have no real botanical significance.

He continues, 'These herbs do grow wilde in Spaine, in Languedocke in France, and in the islands called Stoechas over against Manilla, we have them in our gardens and keep them with great diligence from the injurie of the cold', in other words considered very tender. Gerard cites Dioscorides and Galen and gives the names in Latin (stoechas), High Dutch (stichas kraut), Spanish (thomani and cantuesso) and in English (French lavender, steckado, stickadoue, cassidonie, and by some simple people cast me down).

For medicinal use he cites Dioscorides as teaching that a decoction of French lavender helps diseases of the chest, and is with good success mixed with counter poisons. The later physicians are not named but cited as writing that the flowers are 'most effectual against paines in the head, and all diseases proceeding from cold causes, and therefore they be mixed in all compositions which are made against head-ache of long continuance, the Apoplexie, the Falling Sickness, and such like diseases'.

Lastly, Gerard states that the 'decoction of the husks and floures drunk, openeth the stoppings of the liver, the lungs, the milt (melts), the mother (womb), the bladder and in one word all other inward parts, cleansing and driving forth all evill and corrupt humours, and provoking urine' .

A summary of uses suggested by Gerard

L. vera was used to treat catalepsie (?), megrims (migraines), epilepsy, fainting and panting and passions of the heart (the latter may be panic attacks or palpitations and heart problems). He also includes giddiness, and palsy (Parkinson's etc.), and lastly a conserve of lavender as being good for all these diseases.

L. stoechas he recommends as good for diseases of the chest (lungs), in counter poisons (theriac and hiera picra), pains in the head, diseases of cold cause and in compositions (compounds) for headaches of long history. Also for apoplexy, epilepsy and similar diseases and lastly a decoction to open all internal organs and provoke urine.

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