After the Rose, there is perhaps no plant more quintessentially English than the lavender, but it is not a native of our shores – in fact, it didn’t even originate in Europe…
Lavender is now well into its third millennium of continuous cultivation and was a favourite across the classical world where civilisations found use for it and pleasure in that use. The Egyptian’s, Phoenicians and Arabs used lavender as a perfume and, for the former, it was also an intrinsic element in the ritual and process of mummification. Cleopatra, rumour has it, used lavender perfume in her seduction of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
It then found its way into the lives of the Greeks and the Romans who quickly grew fond of lavender scented baths – indeed, its name comes from lavare, the Latin for to wash.
Lavender made its way to France via the Greek islands around 600 BCE – England had to wait another six centuries for the Romans to invade and introduce it along with togas, aqueducts and central heating. By then, the Romans had discovered its versatility and were using it not just as a perfume but also as a culinary herb, pesticide and antiseptic.
Like so much else, lavender fell out of use during the Dark Ages, its cultivation becoming pretty much restricted to convent and monastic gardens. In the 12th Century, Northern washerwomen were known as Lavenders as they would add it to the washing water and also place the clean linen on lavender bushes to dry. Around this time, lavender was mentioned in two works in English: the Book of the Physicians of Myddvai (a Welsh tale) as Llafant and in the Feate of Gardening as Lavyndull.
As the Middle Ages progressed, it gained popularity at court and in the gardens of the nobility. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, lavender finally migrated into domestic gardens from where it quickly established itself in the popular consciousness. It also remained a royal favourite – Lavender compote (or conserve) was a staple of Elizabeth I’s table and she also drank many a draft of lavender tea to combat migraine. Apparently, she even set her gardeners the task of providing fresh lavender flowers all year round – we can only assume that they disappointed her and hope that she met that disappointment with understanding. Elizabeth’s reign also saw the introduction of new varieties from abroad – a domestic breeding programme was still a long way off.
Another Queen – Victoria – was all but addicted to lavender essence and appointed Miss Sarah Sprules her personal Purveyor. Miss Sprules was based at Mitchum, a suburb of South London, and the centre of lavender oil production from where lavender products were exported across the world. On the international market, English lavender oil would fetch prices 4-6 times greater than that of its French counterpart.
As Victoria’s long reign progressed, so did lavender’s popularity with millions of people following the royal example by using it to wash floors and walls, polish furniture, repel inspects, perfume soap and treat lice and other common ailments. Small muslin bags of dried lavender were even made for young, unattached ladies to dangle in their cleavage to help them attract a suitor. Inevitably, its very popularity led eventually to it falling out of favour, though it did enjoy a resurgence during the First World War when its mild antiseptic qualities led to lavender water being used to bathe soldiers’ wounds.
Today, lavender is back in vogue – as a plant, a herb, a colour and a perfume. Lavender’s just for ‘old ladies’? Think again – it is, for example, an essential note in many a man’s cologne including: La Nuit de l`Homme (Yves Saint Laurent); Le Male (Jean Paul Gaultier) ; Fahrenheit (Dior); Dior Homme (Dior); Egoïste Platinum (Chanel); Cool Water (Davidoff) and Eternity (Calvin Klein).
2,500 years on and we’re still dabbing it behind our ears…well, maybe not our ears, but you know what we mean.