The true origins of lavender are unclear, but its qualities for both fragrance and healing properties have been recognised almost since the beginning of recorded civilisation. When Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922, 3,000 years after it was sealed, traces of lavender were found which still retained slight scent.
Lavender is thought to have been first domesticated in Arabia, highly prized and valuable for its antiseptic and healing qualities, as well as a high quality perfume. The first crude stills were constructed for the extraction of the essential oils by the system of steam distillation, the same principles we still use today and have to thank them for.
Lavender became a prized commodity for traders and soon spread east through Greece. Its early name of ‘spikenard’ was derived from the town of Nardus becoming the centre for lavender trade. There are many references to spikenard throughout the bible.
The Romans loved lavender, and used it extensively in their elaborate bathing rituals, as well as for perfume, cooking and early medicines. It may have been from the latin lavare, meaning ‘to wash’ that lavender found its more common name. However, its name also may have come from the latin livendula, meaning bluish.
From here lavender spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
Lavender in England
History states that the Romans brought lavender here to England. It is possible that Phoenician traders had already introduced it through trade, but the Romans were the first to commercially grow it as a crop for their use and were probably the first to grow Lavender on the Cotswolds to provide supplies for their soldiers. Its all round healing qualities making it the first choice for many ailments, and one of the first natural antiseptics.
When the Romans left England, lavender was grown extensively by monks as part of their physic gardens. These provided a whole range of herbal remedies. The south facing chalk slopes around Carshalton and Hitchin became the main lavender growing areas of England, an industry that survived until the early 1900’s.
Lavender soon became entwined within English folklore. A lavender cross was often hung on the door to ward off evil spirits. During the Great Plague of the 17th century people would tie lavender bunches to their wrists to guard against infection. In 16th century it was effectively used to guard against cholera.