Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Scent of Lavender...

By Lauren Gilbert
Lavender from Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 via Wikimedia Commons


      I have loved the scent of lavender since I was a teenager in the ‘60’s when Yardley’s English Lavender became a popular fragrance (at least, it was new to me!).  Light, fresh, clean and sweet, lavender has an ageless appeal.  It is almost impossible to pick up a Regency novel without a mention of lavender, whether it is scenting the hero’s immaculate white linen (a suitably masculine blend, of course), or wafting ever so subtly from the heroine’s lace-edged handkerchief. 
     Lavender is an ancient herb, long associated with healing.  Its Latin name Lavandula latifolia, appears to be derived from the Latin verb lavare, meaning “to wash” and the Romans used it to deter flies and sweeten the air, as well as to clean and dress wounds.  The ancient Egyptians used lavender in embalming and in scented unguents.  It was widely used in Tudor England, where  lavender was placed in linens (not only making them smell sweet but discouraging insects!); sewn into little bags, it could be tucked amongst clothing or into one’s bosom.  Queen Elizabeth found lavender tea soothing for migraines and used lavender perfume as well.  In the Georgian era, the perfumers D R Harris made a popular lavender water for gentleman, and Floris used lavender in potpourris and perfumes for ladies (both are still in business today)
     Down through the centuries, lavender has been long considered something of a miracle herb.  In  Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal (1653 edition), he says it cures “all griefs and pains of the head and brain that proceed of a cold cause…” and also recommends its use for dropsy, heart ailments, liver and spleen obstructions, tooth ache, and more.  Even today, herb guides discuss its antiseptic and painkilling attributes.  (Mine says it can be used to sooth insect bites, burns, sore throats and headaches, and is a relaxant when used in the bath, among other medicinal uses!)   I know from personal experience that it works wonderfully to deter moths and other insects from my linen closet and pantry-how many modern insect repellents work well, smell wonderful, and have no poisonous effects?
Among many old recipes including lavender I ran across, two seemed good to include:
The first is not adapted for modern preparation, other than the list of ingredients:
Lavender Wine (1655)
1 bottle of Sack, 3 ounces of sugar, 2 ounces of lavender flowers, and ambergris
Take 2 ounces of dryed lavender flowers and put them into a bottle of Sack, and beat 3 ounces of Sugar candy, or fine Sugar, and grinde some Ambergreese, and put it in the bottle and shake it oft, then run it through a gelly bag, and give it for a great Cordiall after a week’s standing or more.
[Derived from a recipe from The Queen’s Closet Opened, by W.M., Cook to Queen Henrietta Maria.]     

The next recipe contains the old version, and an adapted version, so that one can make it if desired:
Martha Lloyd’s English Lavender Water
To one quart of the best rectified spirits of wine put 3/4 oz. of essence of Lavender and 1/2 a scruple of ambergris; shake it together and it is fit to use in a few days.
Modern Equivalents
From: Herbinfo
To make Lavender water, put 3 handfuls of dried Lavender flowers into a wide necked screw top jar and add 1 cup of white wine vinegar and 1/2 cup Rose water.
Leave the mixture in the dark for 2-3 weeks and shake the bottle frequently.
If flowers are not available, use essential oils. Mix 25 drops of essential oil (traditionally lavender, rose or neroli) with 2 fl oz (50ml) ethyl alcohol (or isopropyl or vodka). Shake them together in a screw-top bottle. Leave the mixture to settle for 2 days then shake again. To store, pour into a dark bottle with a tight fitting lid and leave almost no air space.
[This recipe is from the Jane Austen Centre Bath website, posted by Laura Boyle 1/3/2002, in its entirety.  This is a fascinating website, and well worth a look!]
Bremness, Lesley.  HERBS.  Dorling Kindersley: New York.  1994
Renfrow, Cindy.  A SIP THROUGH TIME A Collection of Old Brewing Recipes.  2008  Culpeper’s Complete Herbal 1653 edition. 

The Georgian Index.  Sellers of Perfumes and Other Toilettries.
Jane Austen Centre Bath.  Martha Lloyd’s English Lavender Water.  The History of Lavender. . The History of Lavender.

Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel.  She is a member of JASNA, lives in Florida, and is working on her next novel. 


  1. Interesting blog, thanks Lauren. A few drops on the pillow is said to improve the quality of sleep.

  2. I once received a gift of lavender shortbread. It was absolutely delicious.

  3. Maggi, I use a lavender linen spray on my pillow-I honestly don't know if I sleep better, but it is very soothing. Barbara, I have had lavender jelly and rose geranium jelly-both were lovely. Somehow I never thought of a perfume ingredient as something good to eat-how wrong can one be?

  4. I'm in love with Lavender. I have a ton growing in my front yard!

  5. Thanks for a great blog. I remember Yardleys--it was the epitome of 'cool' back in the day! THanks for reminding me of it and all the other great info --This is Anne Barnhill but I'll remain, anonymous!

  6. Meg-I've tried to grow lavender, but it doesn't seem to like the Florida climate! "Anonymous"-I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  7. I love the scent of lavender. I grow it alongside my roses, and absolutely find I fall asleep easier, and sleep better with it scenting my pillows.

  8. I've enjoyed planting a "collection" of lavender on my dry, unsightly front slope. But now it's fragrant and beautiful! Thanks so much for the article, Lauren.


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