The Ancient History of Lavender
The lavender shrub is named from the Latin lavare, to wash because the ancient Romans and Carthaginians used lavender in their bath water as a perfume as well as for its therapeutic properties. Burnett put it more poetically – the ancients “employed the flowers and the leaves to aromatize their baths, and to give a sweet scent to the water in which they washed.”
Turner in his work A New Herball from the mid-1500s, however, provides the explanation that the name originated from lavare
“Because wyse men founde by experience that it was good to washe mennes heades with, which had any deceses therein, or wieknes that come of a colde cause…”
Apparently claiming that lavender was effective against treating mental disease.
The Greeks called lavender Nardus, referring to a city in Syria called Naarda, where lavender was often sold. Many simply called the plant Nard.
3,000 years after King Tutankhamen’s tomb was sealed, the lavender found within when it was opened in 1922, still retained some of its fragrance.
During Pliny’s time (23 – 79 AD), blossoms of lavender sold for 100 Roman denarii per pound, a quite princely sum equaling the cost of ten pounds of bread or ten litres of cheap wine.
The Romans, called lavender "Asarum", essentially wild spikenard in English. That name evolved from their belief that the much-poisonous asp viper lived among lavender and that the plant must therefore be approached with great caution.
Lavender was prized by English royals. Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) was said to have been partial to lavender flowers. During a time that lavender was primarily grown for its medicinal and aromatic qualities, Queen Henrietta Maria (1609 – 1669), wife of Charles I, preferred a tender white variety of lavender for the beauty of the plant itself. Though by 1766, John Reid in The Scots Gardener discusses the merits of using lavender as an edging for large garden walks.
Lavender history also includes Shakespeare (1564 – 1616). He mentioned lavender in Winter’s Tale and used lavender and other flowers to denote middle age. This metaphor of lavender to denote middle age was either the invention of the great playwright or commonplace during his lifetime.
It is undeniable that Lavender's history is rich with uses both superficial and medical. We can only hope that nothing will ever touch our ability to cultivate this wonderful plant!
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