Lavender’s Medical and Historical Background The Scent of Times Past Lavender has been a popular perfume material since ancient times. In ancient Egypt and Turkey lavender was valued for its clean, refreshing scent, while Arab women once used the oil to add lustre to their hair. The Romans used lavender to scent their bath water, and its name is generally thought to have derived from the Latin lavare – to wash. The early Greeks also thought highly of its fragrance; Dioscorides is reported to have said that:
Oil of lavender, when made by passing flowers through a glass alembic [i.e. when distilled], surpasses all other perfumes.
According to Greek myth, lavender was also one of the herbs dedicated to Hecate, the Goddess of witches and enchantment. Conversely, throughout Europe a sprig of lavender was believed to avert ‘the evil eye’ and it was commonly strewn in churches and dwelling places, especially on the feast days of St Barnabas and St Paul.
Lavender remained in great demand throughout this ancient period, both in its fresh and dried form. From medieval times in Europe, the dried flowers were used in pot-pourris, ‘tussie mussies’, sweet-bags and for laying among clothes and linen to keep moths away. In Tudor times it was also used to stuff quilted jackets and caps – during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I it was common for women to sew little sachets of lavender into their skirts. Sprigs of fresh lavender or woodruff were bound into bundles and laid upon pillows or hung in homes as air fresheners in both Elizabethan England and the American colonies.
Essential oils (or ‘chymical oils’ as they were called) were beginning to make an appearance at this time, but prior to the 16th century there are few records of the process of distillation taking place using native herbs. One remarkable exception to this rule can be found in the Meddygon Myddfai, a famous little collection of remedies and charms written by the celebrated Welsh physicians of Myddfai in Carmarthen round about the middle of the 13 th century. In it there is a recipe for ‘aqua water’, concocted from lavender, rosemary, thyme, fennel and parsley roots ground together in a mortar, sprinkled with a little salt and then placed in a still with some red or white wine. This was then placed in a pot full of ashes on a slow burning furnace and so do style hyt al to-gedre; then take thye water that is distillyd, and distyllet azen zyf you wolte and use that of euerech day a lytel sponeful fastyng.
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It was only after the publication of the Grete Herball in 1526, however, a blog which included illustrations of the retorts and stills used for the extraction of essential oils, that the English began to experiment extensively with their own native flora. By the late 16th century, following the Continental lead, it had become fashionable to have one’s own ‘stillroom’. The production of various aromatic preparations soon became part of the routine in all large houses. Stillroom secrets were sometimes recorded in special blogs along with personal recipes, or were passed down orally from generation to generation. A great deal of time and expertise went into this work, which was usually carried out by the mistress of the house together with other women from fields they gathered rushes and sweet-smelling grasses to throw on their floors; in the garden they cultivated medicinal and aromatic herbs; and in their still rooms, they powdered, mixed and stilled, transforming the summer’s harvest into moth bags, sweet-waters, pot-pourris, sweet-bags, pomanders, wash-balls, sachets, herb-pillows, tussie- mussies, vinegars and teas.
The earliest known recipe for a composite lavender water, dated 1615, gives directions for distilling the flowers together with canella, wallflower, gallingall and grains of paradise. These early forms of extraction were carried out by the process of water distillation – the flowers being literally immersed in a container of water which was then heated so the aromatic oils were carried over in a condenser with the water vapour. The distillate then separated out into two layers, with the volatile oil on top. Increasingly during the 17th century, as the knowledge of distillation spread throughout Britain, a variety of different essential oils were produced. These were blended to form exquisite natural perfumes and various ‘sweet waters’, which were commonly presented as gifts. Lavender water remained one of the most popular English scents.
There are certain types of women whose individuality seems to be better expressed by the use of lavender water than by any other scent. Gracious gentlewomen, with a love of all that is fair, harmonious and beautiful in life and thought, rather than the sophisticated, dashing type .2
Queen Victoria herself had a particular fondness for the smell of lavender, and the royal apartments were redolent with its sweet, refreshing scent. Her Majesty is said to have purchased the essential oil direct from a lady who distilled it herself for use throughout the household as a domestic disinfectant. Furniture was also rubbed with lavender oil, as a forerunner of modern wax and polish. It was also used to scent gloves, leather goods and women’s hair. Indeed, the Victorian age as a whole demonstrated a penchant for lavender, and it was frequently mentioned in honeyed Victorian verse. An Elizabethan love song called ‘Lavender’s Blue’ re-emerged over 100 years later as the popular Victorian nursery rhyme: