A Story of Lavender

Lavender was once a virtual medicine chest in every home. It was used for everything: as a nerve stimulant and restorative, for the relief of muscular aches and pains and sprains, to induce peaceful slumber and ease the ache of rheumatism and nervous headaches, to promote the appetite following illness, and to relieve flatulence.
Merck said of true lavender {L. angustifolia} that it was ‘a stimulant, tonic, and used internally and externally in hysteria, headaches, fainting, nervous palpitation and giddiness’. The ‘vapours’ so beloved of susceptible victorian ladies were frequently treated with lavender water. No doubt loosened stays contributed to the cure!
As has so often occurred when old herbal remedies have been tested by modern science, many of lavender’s medicinal uses have been found to be solidly based on fact. Lavender oil has been shown to have antibiotic activity and will kill pneumococcus Streptococcus, Koch’s bacillus, diphtheria, and typhoid bacilli. So the traditional use of oil of lavender in the treatment of mild burns, abrasions, cuts, sword wounds, sores, varicose ulcers and stings, and also for coughs, colds and chest infections with a lavender tisane or steam inhalation, would have been effective. An infusion of the flowers of true lavender was also used as a douche for leucorrhoea.
Lavender oil was used extensively as an antiseptic in World Wars I and II when surgical supplies became scarce. Lavender farms, herb farms and every grower of a lavender bush in England were asked to contribute lavender for the cause. Britain, cut off from Continental sources of much-needed drugs, appeals to its citizens to assist the war effort by gathering various herbs from the seashore and countryside. Among the herbs requested in World War II were foxgloves, comfrey, wormwood, marigolds, yarrow, elderflowers and hawthorn berries from the hedgerows and woods, and seaweeds rich in agar from the coast. Some 750 tonnes of dried herbs were gathered by the Woman’s Institute, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and men and women in the various services. And should that quantity not sound enough, the quantity of fresh required to produce that amount of dried herbs was 6,000 tonnes!

In France, it is still quite common for housewives to keep a bottle of essence of lavender for use on bruises, sprains, and bites.
Anyone who has stripped dried lavender flowers from their stalks on a warm summer day in a fairly closed room will know that the temptation to fall asleep is utterly irresistible. Its sedative action is amazingly strong and often, by just opening a bottle of oil in a confined space, I have seen visible relaxation in a person who is very anxious or stressed.
A week infusion {5 g of dried flowers in a liter of boiling water} sweetened with honey was a traditional treatment for problems of nervous origin such as insomnia, irritability and nervous headaches. A few drops of oil of lavender rubbed on the temples were considered equally effective. And if your sleeplessness is of the tossing and turning variety compounded by summer heat, try my favorite trick of sprinkling the pillow with cool fragrance lavender water. It is amazingly effective as it is old-fashioned. Sleep pillows containing freshly dried lavender are the answer for those who make a habit of seeing the dawn in.
A rub-down of lavender oil before retiring to bed completely relieves night-time symptoms of constantly spasming leg muscles, which is a truly exhausting condition to suffer from. For those with weary legs at the end of a hard day’s work, a few drops of oil of lavender in a hot footbath can relieve fatigue remarkably. A few drops of oil rubbed into the skin has also been used traditionally to ease neuralgic pain. And an old countryman’s trick in both England and France was to tuck a spray of lavender under a hat to prevent or cure a nervous headache.
Lavender water rubbed on the back and chest can, in my experience, do much to quieten irritating chest coughs and has traditionally been used for this purpose in France. Lavender is sedative to both the nervous system and the respiratory tract.
Compound tincture of lavender or tincture of red lavender was listed in the British Pharmacopoeia for over two hundred years. It was known in the eighteenth century as Red Hartshorn or Palsy Drops. The early formulation was a complex one involving the distillation of lavender flowers, sage flowers, rosemary flowers, cowslips, betony flowers, and others with French brandy. A maceration was then prepared from the distillate and various aromatic spices. Finally, fixatives, colorants, and fragrance were added in the form of the Apothecary’s Rose {R. gallica officinalis}, musk, ambergris, saffron, and red sandalwood. The 1746 Pharmacopoeia saw a considerable simplification in the formulation, consisting of the oils of rosemary and lavender added to spirits of wine and macerated with nutmeg, cinnamon, and red sandalwood. This formulation remained virtually unchanged thereafter.
Red lavender lozenges were also favored as a mild stimulant against faintness and giddiness. Other traditional formulations included the famous Oleum Spicae, which consisted of one part of oil of lavender and three parts spirits of wine and was popularly used on sprains and stiff or aching joints. Pure oil of lavender was once commonly used rubbed into paralyzed legs to stimulate them. I imagine that in cases of hysterical paralysis caused by the trauma of various kinds it might well have been very effective.
The volatile oil obtained from the distillation of L. angustifolia contains lavenderyl acetate, terpineol, pinene, borneol, camphor, cineole, linabol, limonene, and linalyl acetate.
Spanish lavender oil, which is distilled in Spain, has a chemical composition resembling that of spike lavender oil. L. stoechas {Italian lavender} is similarly distilled and is likewise low in the esters present in L. angustifolia. They are used to add fragrance to soaps, disinfectants, and other household items, in the manufacture of some fine varnishes and lacquers and by porcelain painters.
While its medicinal use appears to be restricted to veterinary practice, there is a traditional use of spike lavender oil in promoting the regrowth of hair that is falling out Where the problem is of nervous origin there may well be a particular basis for such a tradition. Lavender also had a reputation as a stimulant to the scalp. Arab women have traditionally used lavender and basil based tonic to perfume and strengthen their hair, To make it, mix together in a glass bottle 2 cups of vodka, 30 ml lavender water, 30 drops of essential oil of lavender and 30 drops essential oil of basil. Allow maturing for two months, shaking thoroughly at regular intervals.
Even the ‘straw’, the stems of dried lavender after the flowers have been stripped, has found medicinal use, being burned in bundles as a deodorant and disinfectant of sick rooms.
Many lavender products are available on the market, but if you grow your own lavender it is possible to make up some of these old-fashioned fragrant formulas for yourself. Be sure to use English lavender {L. angustifolia}.