What is lavender, anyways? This may seem like an easy question, but below the surface lies something more interesting. Yes, it is a plant, but it is also a color, a scent, a flavor. How did lavender come to be something so popular-- so ubiquitous -- that it has made its way all the way to American teacups and bodywash alike?
Lavender actually refers to the Lavandula plants, over 45 flowering plants in the family of mint. It is difficult to say with certainty where these plants were originally from, though it is likely in the Mediterranean. The Lavandula genus “has a distribution stretching from the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands and Madeira, across the Mediterranean Basin, North Africa, South West Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and tropical NE Africa with a disjunction to India,” and now is grown everywhere from the Northern Europe to South Asia.¹
The lavender plant has been popular for a long while. Some claim these plants were written about in Greek herbals, although there is some confusion over which writers mentioned it.² And indeed, the plant was allegedly used by Cleopatra as a seduction tool.³ In particular, an 1874 history of natural drugs claims that “in 1387 cushions of satin were made for King Charles VI. of France to be stuffed with ‘lavende’.” And according to this book, the plant was “well known to the botanist of the 16th century,” demonstrating its long-standing popularity amongst many different groups of people.⁴
Lavender has long been distilled into an oil for use as both perfume and medicine. A 19th century London Medical Gazette journal article writes that “the oil which is obtained from [broad-leaved lavender] is imported into [England] under the name of oil of spike,” or “foreign oil of lavender.” From Lavandula vera, the author of this text writes, “We obtain a very fragrant oil, the oleum lavandula verae, commonly known in commerce as English oil of lavender.” According to the author, “this oil is used extensively by perfumers,” and posses the “stimulant and carminative properties...and may be given in doses from one to five drops in hysteria and nervous headache.”⁵
In addition to its uses in oils, lavender was also popularly used in elixirs in the early modern and modern periods. For instance, in a manuscript receipt book ca. 1634, a recipe to prevent “quartan agues,” or fevers that occur every four days, calls for a “decoction” of sage, rosemary, and lavendar, writing, “drinke a draught of this before the fitt Cometh, It helpes.”⁶ The same book also gives a recipe for “The oyle of Swallowes for an Ache, or Bruise,” which calls for (in addition to swallows), thyme, lavender, cotton, and more.⁷ This manuscript receipt book demonstrates the variety of ways lavender was used -- applied topically, drunk in an elixir, and more.
Today, lavender is used in aromatherapy, a holistic treatment used to treat many ailments, including anxiety, depression, and more. For aromatherapy, lavender is used in its essential oil from, and applied either topically or disseminated via a vapor. While the studies are mixed, one peer-reviewed trial noted the lavender oil has a “calming effect without producing sedation, which is advantageous compared with benzodiazepines or pregalin.” This study also noted that lavender oil “lacks withdrawal syndrome and is not thought to have abuse potential.”⁸ Other medical studies noted how lavender can help treat patients before and after surgeries.⁹ Furthermore, studies, as cited by a medically reviewed Healthline article, detail how lavender is used as a tool to improve memory, relieve pain, increase antiseptic properties, and more.¹⁰
In addition to aromatherapy, lavender has popularly been used as a flavoring agent, imparting herbal notes to light cakes or teas. For instance, Allrecipes instructs on how to cook Lavender tea bread; the eponymous plant imparts light floral notes to the cake. Other forms of oral ingestion of lavender are thought to promote sleep; for instance, many companies sell bedtime tea laden with lavender.
While the NIH has noted that lavender shouldn’t replace medically approved treatments for depression, anxiety, and more,¹¹ there do seem to be many benefits to lavender, both in terms of medicine as well as creating delicious treats. So you might want to drink up your lavender tea, eat your lavender teacake, and smell your lavender oil-- there could be massive benefits in store for you!
Wise Words Written by Julia Fine - Julia is a writer, food historian, and the host of Brewing Productivitea Podcast. She has written for Atlas Obscura, Nursing Clio, and other historical publications.