Updated: Jun 11, 2020
The scent of lavender is one of the more powerful sensory experiences of the summer herb garden. This sweet, green floral aroma with notes of camphor has the magical ability to conjure a drowsy nostalgia and memories of the past. The complex fragrance of lavender is created by the merging of roughly 180 chemicals which evolved to lure bees and other pollinators in the summer heat to the purple flowers. Indeed the plant–with its flowers (which are not quite blue, gray, lilac, or purple), its very strong fragrance, and its fine leaves and feathery growth form– is perhaps the quintessential plant of Mercury and elemental Air.
There are currently about 39 recognized species in the genus Lavandula (which is part of the mint family), all of which are native to the Old World. These species include the common Old English lavender, French lavender and Spanish lavender. Lavender grows readily in the hotter drier climates of the Mediterranean and flourishes best in dry, well-drained soil in full sun. It is also cultivated in temperate gardens all over the world, but the plant can be susceptible to root rot in areas with high humidity or saturated soil. It blooms throughout the summer, and the scent is carried in the foliage as well as the flowers.
Lavender has been consistently used since ancient times. Its names, both common (lavender) and scientific (Lavandula), come from the latin verb for washing, lavare. Many of it’s usages throughout history have been related to cleanliness. It has been an additive to bathing water through ancient Rome, medieval Europe, to the Victorian Era and on into the present day. Likewise, and still tied to the notion of cleanliness, lavender was used to scent linens and to keep moths and insects from clothing through all of those periods. Additionally, because the plant produces a large amount of essential oil which is easily extracted with steam distillation, lavender has long been an ingredient in the art of perfumery. In fact, it’s one of the ingredients in the popular Victorian Eau de Cologne Florida Water, which also has ties to cleanliness. In hot summers, where Victorian fashion dictated that one wore a great deal of clothing, Florida water provided a bit of cooling relief as the alcohol evaporated, and helped mask the odor of sweat. Today, Florida water continues to be popular with magicians and occultists for all manner of psychic cleansing.
In addition to its cleansing properties lavender is also a useful healing herb, and healing uses were first described by the Roman physician Dioscorides in the 1st century CE. Lavender was quite popular in the medieval materia medica; the medieval herbalist and botanist Saint Hildegard of Bingen perscribed it for a number of maladies. Our old friend Nicholas Culpeper (the 17th century English herbalist) says of lavender: “Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently”. By this he means it is an airy, balancing herb and very efficacious against the maladies of Jupiter. The diseases governed by Jupiter include apoplexy, pleurisy, diseases of the liver, piles, colds and influenza, and, in the mental sphere, restlessness and overheating of the mind. Throughout the centuries Lavender has also been prescribed for headaches, faintness, hysteric fits, panic attacks, heartaches and grief. Modernly, lavender is showing promise as an aerosolized antiviral and calming agent in some hospitals and clinics, hinting that the knowledge of physickers may not be that far off the map. It’s also being explored as an effective topical treatment for wounds and burns with anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properies.