1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lavender

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16
Lavender
See also Lavender on Wikipedia; and our 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica disclaimer. The species name for the common variety is now Lavandula angustifolia.

LAVENDER, botanically Lavandula, a genus of the natural order Labiatae distinguished by an ovate tubular calyx, a two-lipped corolla, of which the upper lip has two and the lower three lobes, and four stamens bent downwards.

The plant to which the name of lavender is commonly applied, Lavandula vera, is a native of the mountainous districts of the countries bordering on the western half of the Mediterranean, extending from the eastern coast of Spain to Calabria and northern Africa, growing in some places at a height of 4500 ft. above the sea-level, and preferring stony declivities in open sunny situations. It is cultivated in the open air as far north as Norway and Livonia. Lavender forms an evergreen under-shrub about 2 ft. high, with greyish-green hoary linear leaves, rolled under at the edges when young; the branches are erect and give a bushy appearance to the plant. The flowers are borne on a terminal spike at the summit of a long naked stalk, the spike being composed of 6-10 dense clusters in the axils of small, brownish, rhomboidal, tapering, opposite bracts, the clusters being more widely separated towards the base of the spike. The calyx is tubular, contracted towards the mouth, marked with 13 ribs and 5-toothed, the posterior tooth being the largest. The corolla is of a pale violet colour, but darker on its inner surface, tubular, two-lipped, the upper lip with two and the lower with three lobes. Both corolla and calyx are covered with stellate hairs, amongst which are imbedded shining oil glands to which the fragrance of the plant is due. The leaves and flowers of lavender are said to have been used by the ancients to perfume their baths; hence the Med. Lat. name Lavandula or Lavendula is supposed to have been derived from lavare, to wash. This derivation is considered doubtful and a connexion has been suggested with Lat. livere, to be of a bluish, pale or livid colour.

Although L. Stoechas was well known to the ancients, no allusion unquestionably referring to L. vera has been found in the writings of classical authors, the earliest mention of the latter plant being in the 12th century by the abbess Hildegard, who lived near Bingen on the Rhine. Under the name of llafant or llafantly it was known to the Welsh physicians as a medicine in the 13th century. The dried flowers have long been used in England, the United States and other countries for perfuming linen, and the characteristic cry of “Lavender! sweet lavender!” was still to be heard in London streets at the beginning of the 20th century. In England lavender is cultivated chiefly for the distillation of its essential oil, of which it yields on an average 1½% when freed from the stalks, but in the south of Europe the flowers form an object of trade, being exported to the Barbary states, Turkey and America.

In Great Britain lavender is grown in the parishes of Mitcham, Carshalton and Beddington in Surrey, and in Hertfordshire in the parish of Hitchin. The most suitable soil seems to be a sandy loam with a calcareous substratum, and the most favourable position a sunny slope in localities elevated above the level of fogs, where the plant is not in danger of early frost and is freely exposed to air and light. At Hitchin lavender is said to have been grown as early as 1568, but as a commercial speculation its cultivation dates back only to 1823. The plants at present in cultivation do not produce seed, and the propagation is always made by slips or by dividing the roots. The latter plan has only been followed since 1860, when a large number of lavender plants were killed by a severe frost. Since that date the plants have been subject to the attack of a fungus, in consequence of which the price of the oil has been considerably enhanced.

The flowers are collected in the beginning of August, and taken direct to the still. The yield of oil depends in great measure upon the weather. After a wet and dull June and July the yield is sometimes only half as much as when the weather has been bright and sunshiny. From 12 to 30 lb of oil per acre is the average amount ob tained. The oil contained in the stem has a more rank odour and is less volatile than that of the flowers; consequently the portion that distils over after the first hour and a half is collected separately.


Britannica Lavender.png

Lavender (Lavandula vera) ¾ nat. size.

1. Flower, side view.
2. Flower, front view.
3. Calyx opened and spread flat.
4. Corolla opened and spread flat.
5. Pistil.


The finest oil is obtained by the distillation of the flowers, without the stalks, but the labour spent upon this adds about 10s. per lb to the expense of the oil, and the same end is practically attained by fractional distillation. The oil mellows by keeping three years, after which it deteriorates unless mixed with alcohol; it is also improved by redistillation. Oil of lavender is distilled from the wild plants in Piedmont and the South of France, especially in the villages about Mont Ventoux near Avignon, and in those some leagues west of Montpellier. The best French oil realizes scarcely one-sixth of the price of the English oil. Cheaper varieties are made by distilling the entire plant.

Oil of lavender is a mobile liquid having a specific gravity from 0.85 to 0.89. Its chief constituents are linalool acetate, which also occurs in oil of bergamot, and linalool, C10H17OH, an alcohol derived by oxidation from myrcene, C10H16, which is one of the terpenes. The dose is ½-3 minims. The British pharmacopeia contains a spiritus lavandulae, dose 5-20 minims: and a compound tincture, dose ½-1 drachm. This is contained in liquor arsenicalis, and its characteristic odour may thus be of great practical importance, medico-legally and otherwise. The pharmacology of oil of lavender is simply that of an exceptionally pleasant and mild volatile oil. It is largely used as a carminative and as a colouring and flavouring agent. Its adulteration with alcohol may be detected by chloride of calcium dissolving in it and forming a separate layer of liquid at the bottom of the vessel. Glycerine acts in the same way. If it contain turpentine it will not dissolve in three volumes of alcohol, in which quantity the pure oil is perfectly soluble.

Lavender flowers were formerly considered good for “all disorders of the head and nerves”; a spirit prepared with them was known under the name of palsy drops.

Lavender water consists of a solution of the volatile oil in spirit of wine with the addition of the essences of musk, rose, bergamot and ambergris, but is very rarely prepared by distillation of the flowers with spirit.

In the climate of New York lavender is scarcely hardy, but in the vicinity of Philadelphia considerable quantities are grown for the market. In American gardens sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is frequently called lavender.

Lavandula Spica, a species which differs from L. vera chiefly in its smaller size, more crowded leaves and linear bracts, is also used for the distillation of an essential oil, which is known in England as oil of spike and in France under the name of essence d'aspic. It is used in painting on porcelain and in veterinary medicine. The oil as met with in commerce is less fragrant than that of L. vera — probably because the whole plant is distilled, for the flowers of the two species are scarcely distinguishable in fragrance. L. Spica does not extend so far north, nor ascend the mountains beyond 2000 ft. It cannot be cultivated in Britain except in sheltered situations. A nearly allied species, L. lanata, a native of Spain, with broader leaves, is also very fragrant, but does not appear to be distilled for oil.

Lavandula Stoechas, a species extending from the Canaries to Asia Minor, is distinguished from the above plants by its blackish purple flowers, and shortly stalked spikes crowned by conspicuous purplish sterile bracts. The flowers were official in the London pharmacopoeia as late as 1746. They are still used by the Arabs as an expectorant and antispasmodic. The Stoechades (now called the isles of Hyères near Toulon) owed their name to the abundance of the plant growing there.

Other species of lavender are known, some of which extend as far east as to India. A few which differ from the above in having divided leaves, as L. dentata, L. abrotanoides, L. multifolia, L. pinnata and L. viridis, have been cultivated in greenhouses, &c., in England.

Sea lavender is a name applied in England to several species of Statice, a genus of littoral plants belonging to the order Plumba gineae. Lavender cotton is a species of the genus Santolina, small, yellow-flowered, evergreen undershrubs of the Composite order.