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The Lavender of our gardens, called also Lavender Spike, is a well-known sweet-smelling shrub, of the Labiate order. It grows wild in Spain, Piedmont, and the south of France, on waysides, mountains, and in barren places. The plant was propagated by slips, or cuttings, and has been cultivated in England since about 1568.
Lavender is produced largely for commercial purposes in Surrey, Hertfordshire, and Lincoln. The shrub is set in long rows occupying fields, and yields a profitable fragrant essential oil from the flowering tops, about one ounce of the oil from sixty terminal flowering spikes.
From these tops also the popular cosmetic lavender water is distilled. They contain tannin, and a resinous camphire, which is common to most of the mints affording essential oils. If a hank of cotton is steeped in the oil of Lavender, and drained off so as to be hung dry about the neck, it will prevent bugs and other noxious insects from attacking that part. When mixed with three-fourths of spirit of turpentine, or spirit of wine, this oil makes the famous Oleum spicoe, formerly much celebrated for curing old sprains and stiff joints. Lavender oil is likewise of service when rubbed in externally, for stimulating paralysed limbs—preferring the sort distilled from the flowering tops to that which is obtained from the stalks. Internally, the essential oil, or a spirit of Lavender made therefrom, proves admirably restorative and tonic against faintness, palpitations of a nervous sort, weak giddiness, spasms, and colic. It is agreeable to the taste and smell, provokes appetite, raises the spirits, and dispels flatulence; but the infusion of Lavender tops, if taken too freely, will cause griping, and colic. In hysteria, palsy, and similar disorders of debility, and lack of nerve power, the spirit of Lavender will act as a powerful stimulant; and fomentations with Lavender in bags, applied hot, will speedily relieve local pains.
"It profiteth them much," says Gerard, "that have the palsy if they be washed with the distilled water from the Lavender flowers; or are anointed with the oil made from the flowers and olive oil, in such manner as oil of roses is used." A dose of the oil is from one to four drops on sugar, or on a small piece of bread crumb, or in a spoonful or two of milk. And of the spirit, from half to one teaspoonful may be taken with two tablespoonfuls of water, hot or cold, or of milk. The spirit of Lavender is made with one part of the essential oil to forty-nine parts of spirit of wine. For preparing distilled Lavender water, the addition of a small quantity of musk does much to develop the strength of the Lavender's odour and fragrance. The essential oil of Lavandula latifolia, admirably promotes the growth of the hair when weakly, or falling off.
By the Greeks the name Nardus is given to Lavender, from Naarda, a city of Syria, near the Euphrates; and many persons call the plant "Nard." St. Mark mentions this as Spikenard, a thing of great value The woman who came to Christ having an alabaster box of ointment of Spikenard, very precious "brake the box, and poured it on His head." In Pliny's time blossoms of the nardus sold for a hundred Roman denarii (or £3 2s. 6d.) the pound. This Lavender or Nardus, was likewise called Asarum by the Romans, because not used in garlands or chaplets. It was formerly believed that the asp, a dangerous kind of viper, made Lavender its habitual place of abode, so that the plant had to be approached with great caution.
Conserves of Lavender were much used in the time of Gerard, and desserts may be most pleasantly brought to the table on a service of Lavender spikes. It is said, on good authority, that the lions and tigers in our Zoological gardens, are powerfully affected by the smell of Lavender-water and become docile under its influence.
The Lavender shrub takes its name from the Latin lavare, "to wash," because the ancients employed it as a perfume. Lavender tops, when dried, and placed with linen, will preserve it from moths and other insects.
The whole plant was at one time considered indispensable in Africa, ubi lavandis corporibus Lybes eâ utuntur; nec nisi decocto ejus abluti mane domo egrediuntur, "where the Libyans make use of it for washing their bodies, nor ever leave their houses of a morning until purified by a decoction of the plant."
In this country the sweet-smelling herb is often introduced for scenting newly washed linen when it is put by; from which custom has arisen the expression, "To be laid up in Lavender." During the twelfth century a washerwoman was called "Lavender," in the North of England.
A tea brewed from the flowers is an excellent remedy for headache from fatigue, or weakness. But Lavender oil is, in too large a dose, a narcotic poison, and causes death by convulsions. The tincture of red Lavender is a popular medicinal cordial; and is composed of the oils of Lavender and rosemary, with cinnamon bark, nutmeg, and red sandal wood, macerated in spirit of wine for seven days; then a teaspoonful may be given for a dose in a little water, with excellent effect, after an indigestible meal, taking the dose immediately when feeling uneasy, and repeating it after half-an-hour if needed. An old form of this compound tincture was formerly famous as "Palsy Drops," it being made from the Lavender, with rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, red sandal wood, and spirit. In some cases of mental depression and delusions the oil of Lavender proves of real service; and a few drops of it rubbed on the temples will cure nervous headache.
Shakespeare makes Perdita (Winter's Tale) class Lavender among the flowers denoting middle age:
"Here's flowers for you,
There is a broad-leaved variety of the Lavender shrub in France, which yields three times as much of the essential oil as can be got from our narrow-leaved plant, but of a second rate quality.
The Sea Lavender, or Thrift (Statice limonium) grows near the sea, or in salt marshes. It gets its name Statice from the Greek word isteemi (to stop, or stay), because of its medicinal power to arrest bleeding. This is the marsh Rosemary, or Ink Root, which contains (if the root be dried in the air) from fourteen to fifteen per cent. of tannin. Therefore, its infusion or tincture will prove highly useful to control bleeding from the lungs or kidneys, as also against dysentery; and when made into a gargle, for curing an ulcerated sore throat.