A Story of Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender is a highly versatile herb with a wide variety of therapeutic and aesthetic qualities. The plant has been used whole or in the form of an essential oil for millennia as a relaxant, an antiseptic, a cure for digestive problems and to repel insects. Lavender is as popular today as it has been throughout the centuries, and the essential oil can be found in a range of cosmetics and aromatherapy products. However, despite its popularity, only recently has scientific evidence been produced to support many of the beliefs about the medicinal and calmative properties of the plant. This article explores how lavender plants and essential oils have become such a popular remedy over the centuries.
Lavender is native to the south of Europe, particularly the Mediterranean and Adriatic coastal areas of France, Spain, Greece and Italy. The Romans were thought to be responsible for the spread of the plant across much of the European continent; today, a field of fragrant, light purple lavender plants is an arresting summertime sight across much of southern England and Eastern Europe.
Lavandula, the genus of lavender, derives from the Latin word lavare, meaning to wash. This hints at the early recorded therapeutic uses of the herb; the calmative properties of lavender meant that it formed an important part of Roman bathing rituals (Muntean et al., 2007).
The first written reference to lavender appears in the works of the ancient Greek philosopher and naturalist Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle who is frequently referred to as the ‘father of botany’ (Walton, 2001). Writing in around 325 BC, Theophrastus made mention of the herb’s ability to assist patients with digestive problems and headaches. In the first century AD, the renowned Roman surgeon Galen listed lavender as an antidote for poisoning and an effective cure for insect bites. Roman physicians also noted that lavender was an effective relaxant; if used correctly it could calm patients and reduce their anxiety (Houdret, 2007). It was used by the Romans to remove lice and repel insects; this natural remedy still used in parts of southern France. Indeed, in the court of French monarch Charles VI (1368 – 1422), lavender lined cushions and pillows became popular for their calming and insect repellent properties.
Lavender essential oil has historically been produced via a process of steam distillation, using both the heads of the flowers and the plants’ foliage. The sweetest, most aromatic oils are derived from the lavender flowers (McGimpsey & Porter, 1999). The oil has been added to teas and foodstuffs to counteract insomnia; it has also been sprinkled directly onto pillows to be inhaled and encourage sleep.
Lavender oil’s capacity to assist with sleep and reduce the severity of symptoms of tension and anxiety have recently received attention from researchers. Scientists have shown in medical trials that lavender essential oils have a positive impact on the quality of participants’ sleep and lead to a reduction in the use of other sedatives (Graham, 1995). Other research has supported the belief that lavender oil can reduce anxiety (Cavanagh & Wilkinson, 2002).
Lavender’s fragrant, purple flowers and medicinal qualities will no doubt ensure that lavender essential oil will continue to be a much-loved remedy for centuries to come.
Cavanagh, H. M. A. & Wilkinson, J. M. (2002) Biological activities of lavender essential oil. Phytotherapy Research, 16: 301-308.
Graham, C. (1995) Complementary therapies: in the scent of a good night’s sleep. Nursing Standards, 9: 21.
Houdret, J. (2007) Practical Herb Garden. London: Anness Publishing.
McGimpsey, J. A. & Porter, N. G. (1999) Lavender: A grower’s guide for commercial production. Wellington: New Zealand Institute for Crop & Food Research.
Muntean, L. S., Tămaú, M. &Muntean, S. (2007) Treatise of Cultivated and Wild Herbs. Cluj-Napoca: Risoprint Publishing.
Walton, S. A. (2001). Theophrastus on Lyngurium: medieval and early modern lore from the classical lapidary tradition. Annals of Science, 58 (4): 357–379.