WHAT IS THIS PLANT?
Laundresses once hung their linens and clothes on its branches.
Archeological evidence shows it was used in the ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, and Arabian mummification process.
King Charles VI of France sat on seat cushions stuffed it.
It was once called “Four Thieves Vinegar.”
What is it?
The answer to all the questions above is lavender.
The likely root of the word lavender is Lavare, a Latin verb meaning “to wash.” This root gave way to laundresses once being called “lavenders.” Another possible root is the Latin word “livendulo,” meaning livid or bluish.
Used in the process of mummification, excavators found unguent-filled jars, containing something resembling lavender, at the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
England’s King Louis XIV not only enjoyed the scent of lavender that was emitted from the seat cushions he sat on, he enjoyed bathing in lavender-scented water. French royalty Charles VI demanded lavender-filled pillows wherever he went.
During the 17th century Bubonic Plague in London, grave-robbers, caught pilfering the belongings of plague victims confessed that their infrequency of suffering from the deadly disease was due to washing in a mixture of lavender and vinegar after they completed their dangerous task.
While researching information for my historical romance novel, Intertwined Love, (www.intertwined.love.wordpress.com ) the lavender plant was mentioned. This made me curious: is the plant something I might work into the novel?
Numerous questions came to mind. Does the plant grow in the cold climate of Maine? If it doesn’t grow in Maine, was it imported there? What is the folklore connected with lavender?
I jumped online to surf the web, starting with the question about growing the plant in Maine. The first site claimed that regardless of dry heat; cold, wet winters; smothering humidity—if you choose your lavender wisely and treat it well, you can “bring the south of France to your garden.”
The Glendarrah Farm Lavender’s site states that this farm is Maine’s first commercial lavender farm, growing “a time-tested herb that, as an agricultural crop, is pest- and disease-resistant.” Located in Appleton, Maine, the farm grows five varieties of French lavender and thirteen varieties of English lavender.
The next site, belonging to The Hummingbird Farm, began with a question: Ah, lavender, most popular and romantic of herbs! or Ugh, lavender, bane of gardeners in the Frozen North.
The site indicates that of the couple of dozen species of lavender, only one is hardy to Zone 5: Lavandula augustifola. The two hardiest varieties of this species are Munstead and Hidcote. This seemed to be confirmed by a quick review of several other Maine sites that recommended the most hardy of these two, Munstead.
The Hummingbird Farm site went on to state that you should make your lavender happy enough to want to survive the winter: plant it in full sun, mulch it with white marble chips (to reflect as much light as possible on its leaves), and give its soil a pH of around 7 (if the soil is acidic, treat it with lime). Adding an annual application of compost to the plants, and not crowding them (allowing for good air circulation to keep the plants warm and dry), will further add to their happiness..
The site made an interesting point: it’s not cold that kills the lavender in the winter. It’s dampness. Roots should be kept as dry as possible. To accomplish this, grow it in raised beds and bury a two-inch thick layer of chicken grit under the root system when you plant it.
The Shakers have grown lavender for over 200 years, and teach others about the best varieties of lavender to plant, maintaining raised beds, and simple propagation, pruning, mulching, harvesting and drying techniques.
So much for cold-climate planting of lavender. I’m convinced it will grow in Downeast Maine, the setting of much of my novel.
What about the lavender plant’s history?
It is thought that around 600 B. C. the Arabians first domesticated lavender. From there it spread from the Greek Hyeres Islands into France, Spain, and Italy. It wasn’t introduced to England or carried to the Americas until the 1600s.
Lavender produces a unique fragrance widely used in the perfume industry. The “fruity” aspect it gives to scented products comes from a green, hay-like property.
The plant played a seductive role in romantic history. Judith (from the Apocrypha), anointed herself with lavender perfume to seduce Holofernes, with the intent on murdering him and saving the Jerusalem. Cleopatra used it to seduce Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Women hung lavender next to their beds to incite the passions. In Tudor times they believed that if maidens sipped a lavender brew on St. Luke’s Day, and chanted “St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see.” Alpine girls put lavender in their pillows, hoping for romance. A 1680 ditty titled “Lavender Blue, Dilly Dilly” brings to mind a song of the later 20th century. In Victorian times small bags of lavender were placed in maiden’s cleavage in the hopes of attracting a suitor.
During the Victorian era lavender was used to wash walls and furniture; in furniture polish and soap; in lavender-filled bags were stuffed between sheets in linen presses; to repel insects; to perfume potpourri.
Lavender also has a medicinal history. A decoction of vodka, gin or brandy mixed with lavender was considered great for migraine headaches by German nun Hildegard of Bingen in the 1100s. It was used to treat lice, and was considered a “cure-all,” to be found in all household medicine chests.
In today’s “modern” world, lavender is used to induce sleep, ease stress and relieve depression. It is also used as a tea, in compresses for dressing wounds, and to apply to the forehead to relieve congestion on sinuses, headaches, hangovers, tiredness, tension and exhaustion.
I doubt that many people today would hang a lavender cross over their door to safeguard them from evil. However, lavender has gained popularity in aromatherapy.
What is it?
Why, it’s lavender!