Explore Lavender's Fascinating History and Popular Uses

Close-up of flower buds on wild lavender plant in outdoor field

Love the smell of lavender? You’re in good company. A recent analysis of U.S. search data concluded that lavender is the most popular candle scent in three American states. Countless lavender-scented products line the shelves of today’s big-name stores and many smaller shops. Whether you prefer lavender oil in your shampoo, lavender-infused drinks or lavender-scented dryer sheets, there’s no denying the widespread appeal of the flower and its fragrant aroma.

Given the ever-increasing popularity of lavender, it's safe to assume that very few modern-day Americans are strangers to the plant. However, not many are familiar with lavender's rich history. Our generation is far from the first to adore the lavender plant and incorporate it into many aspects of our daily lives. Read on to learn more about lavender’s origins and uses throughout world history.

What’s In The Name “Lavender?”

Would lavender by any other name still smell as sweet? That’s for you to decide. The herb widely known as "lavender" today was originally known as “spikenard” or “nard” in ancient texts (including the Bible). This name was given in reference to the Syrian city of Naarda, the first documented location of its growth. While the plant is native to the Old World, it was eventually exported to a number of nearby regions including Rome and Greece. Ancient Romans coined the name “Lavender,” from the Latin lavare meaning “to wash.”

The term lavender is now used to describe up to forty-seven known species of Lavandula, a genus of the plant family. The plant species most commonly described as “lavender” is scientifically classified as Lavandula angustifolia. In fact, the color lavender was named after the exact shade of this species’ flowers.

Historic Uses of the Lavender Plant

Lavender as a Luxury Fragrance

Lavender oil in glass vial beside flowers from lavender plant

Romans coveted the plant for its aesthetic and aromatic appeal. In Roman times, flowers cost an estimated 100 denarii per pound – a full month’s pay for farm laborers of the era. Fifty haircuts from a local barber could be purchased for approximately the same amount as a single pound of lavender. Many ancient Romans who could afford to purchase the plant would bottle lavender oil for use as perfume to scent their bodies, hair, clothes and even bedding. Others were believed to use lavender in their baths for added relaxation and cleansing.

Lavender as an Herbal Remedy

Lavender was used by ancient doctors as early as 2,000 years ago. Pedanius Dioscorides, Greek physician to the Roman army, vocally advocated for lavender’s cleansing properties and propensity for healing. He recommended the use of lavender in the cleaning of external wounds to hasten the healing process. Dioscorides believed that injesting lavender could also help to alleviate indigestion, headaches and sore throats.

English herbalist John Parkinson also spoke highly of the lavender plant. In his sixteenth century work entitled Theatrum Botanicum, Parkinson praised lavender as “especially good use for all griefes and paines of the head and brain.”

[Lavender plants in old-fashioned silver teapot beside large scissors

Lavender as a Culinary Component

The Forme of Cury originated in the fourteenth-century as an extensive collection of medieval recipes. While the original manuscript cannot be found, its full contents are included in nine other historic texts, one of which credits King Richard II’s Chief Master Cooks with its creation. The historic text lists “Spanish nard” (the Lavandula species L. stoechas) as an ingredient in the spiced wine “hippocras.”

In the sixteenth century, lavender was incorporated into English cuisine. Queen Elizabeth is said to have loved a lavender jam she was served, prompting its incorporation into a variety of other jams and teas in her era.

Lavender was popularized in traditional French cuisines toward the end of the 1800s. French lambs were given lavender to graze on, which was believed to improve their meat’s aroma and tenderness.

The Lavandula species L. angustifolia - also known as "English Lavender" - is used most often in modern-day recipes. A variety of lavender-infused foods are available for purchase today – including jellies, baked goods, salads and dressings. Lavender buds are a crucial component of monofloral honey (once they've been processed by bees). The plant's flower buds and greens are also a staple of many lavender teas.

Bee pollinating lavender plant flowers in outdoor field