Lavandula, or Lavender, is a powerfully aromatic shrub that is part of the Lavandula angustifolia subspecies Angustifolia, or the subspecies Pyrenaica, commonly referred to as the mint family. It's most widely cultivated species is Lavandula angustifolia, curiously known as English Lavender, although the species is not native to England. The plant is also known as garden lavender. Lavender is one of the most widely used of the essential oils. The lavender plant is best known for its multiple uses, its pleasant floral fragrance, and its visual beauty.
Lavender shrubs grow as high as 6.6 feet tall. Its evergreen leaves are generally from 0.79 to 2.36 inches long, and up to .24 inches broad. The flowers of the lavender plant are a pinkish-purple color that is named after the plant. The flowers are produced on spikes that are approximately 3.15 inches long at the top of slender stems that do not have leaves.
While best known as an ornamental plant, this hearty shrub is used as a herbal medicine, either in the form of herbal tea or as lavender oil. Its flowers are sometimes used as a culinary herb that is included in the French blend, herbes de Provence.
Lavender Oil History
Lavender was first used for medicinal purposes in India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, some 2500 years ago. It was referred to as “nardus” or “nard” by the ancient Greeks, after the city of Naarda in Syria. The plant was revered as a holy herb, and was used in holy essences, referred to as “spikenard,” in the Bible, and is believed by Biblical scholars to have been used on the infant Jesus, and as an anointment after the crucifixion in preparation for his burial.
Decorative urns containing lavender residues were found in Egyptian tombs, where the herb was used in the Egyptians mummification process.
During the Renaissance, lavender was used during the Plague to protect people against infections. Lice carried the disease on rats, and lavender was used for its effective insect repellent properties.
It was also used during the Victorian Era, when Queen Victoria appointed Sarah Sprules, as its official purveyor. Furniture and floors were washed in lavender, and the linens were perfumed with its scent. Its popularity quickly spread among wealthy English women who would scent themselves and their homes with the sweet scent. As its demand grew, it began to be cultivated through commercial farms to help maintain its supplies.
The lavender used today was rediscovered by one of the founders of aromatherapy, who had burned himself, and plunged his arm into the lavender essential oil. He noted that the wound quickly healed, did not become infected, and did not scar. Lavender was also used during WWI, as an antibacterial dressing for wounds when soldiers would present with injuries.
The word Lavender comes from the Latin “lavare,” which means “to wash”. Today, its largest producer is Provence, France. It is also commercially grown in the United States, Canada, Bulgaria, Australia, Japan, Spain, Russia, and in the Netherlands. It is generally distilled using the steam method of distillation.
What is steam distillation?
Extracting essential oils by steam distillation takes place three different ways:
- Straight steam
- Water distillation
- Steam/water distillation
Lavender is distilled using the straight steam method. This method involves forcing steam through the plant material, then collecting the essential oil. The steam is used to rupture the membranes in the plant, which releases the oil. The oil travels to a condenser where the lighter essential oil separates and floats to the top. The water is removed from the mixture and used as a hydrosol or floral water. The oil becomes essential oil.