A Traditional European Folk Remedy Lavender has been used for healing purposes since primitive times, but the first mention of its specific use can be traced back to ancient Greece. Dioscorides is credited with having compiled the first extensive Materia Medica during the 1st century ad, in which he described the therapeutic qualities of over 500 plants taken from both Egyptian and Greek herbal lore. He refers to French lavender (L. Stoechas) as:
An herb with slender twiggs having ye haire like Tyme, but yet longer leaved sharp in ye taste and somewhat bitterish, but ye decoction of it as the Hyssop is good for ye griefs in ye thorax.
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Dioscorides also attributed certain laxative and invigorating properties to it, and recommended its use in a tea-like infusion for chest complaints. The great doctor Galen (ad 129-199) prescribed French lavender as an antidote to poisons, and for uterine disorders. Pliny the Elder, a contemporary of Dioscorides, used it for promoting menstruation and for treating snake bites and stings as well as, when taken in wine, for digestive, liver, renal and gall bladder disorders. He also ascribed it with some psychological benefit by claiming that it banished the ‘pain of the bereft’. Indeed, from the Greek medical practice there is derived the term ‘iatra-lypte’, from the physician who cured by the use of aromatic unctions.
But whereas the Greeks regarded lavender principally as a medicine, the Romans used it extensively for its fragrance. Pliny was the first to distinguish between French lavender (L. Stoechas) and ‘true’ lavender (L. Vera), revealing that the Romans used the latter for ‘stretching’ exotic perfumes. The Romans spent vast sums of money on their ritual ablutions, and at the public baths the Unctuarium or ‘Oil Room’ housed innumerable ready-mixed lotions, many of which contained lavender. The Romans also traditionally used the dried crushed leaves of lavender as a form of incense in honour of their gods. It was burnt on hot coals at ceremonial occasions as well as in preparation for childbirth.
It was the monks who preserved the knowledge of herbal lore in Europe during the Dark Ages. The Abbess of Hildegarde (1098-1180) from the diocese of Mainz made some of the earliest medicinal references to lavender in her prolific writings. She dedicated a whole chapter to lavender, which she described as a fierce, dry and strong-smelling herb, albeit without edible value. 3 She prescribed it for, among other things, clearing the eyes, getting rid of lice and banishing evil spirits! She also recommended lavender for ‘keeping a pure character’.
The monasteries, in addition, cultivated elaborately laid out herb gardens behind their high walls. A special plot was usually designated for the herb garden near the kitchen, which was often planted with a single herb in each bed, grown especially for its specific culinary or medicinal use. This type of classically arranged formal herb garden lasted right up to the mid-17th century, and reached a peak of popularity during the Elizabethan era. In A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare describes a few of the herbs one might expect to find growing in such a garden;