Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen
While lavender is often most associated with Provence, English lavender has a long and storied heritage. Cultivated in English gardens since around 1568, demand in the Victorian era encouraged commercial farming to help maintain supply. In France, the perfumiers of Grasse relied on the harvesting of wild lavender by local peasants, resulting in haphazard collection and variable quality. Commercially-cultivated English lavender, on the other hand, was a fine, consistent product worth as much as six times the French price.
Once a mainstay of Victorian horticulture, over the 20th century the English lavender industry declined until by the 1980s there was only a single commercial grower left in the country. Happily though, English lavender is now resurgent, with producers like Mayfield Lavender Farm at the forefront of this renaissance.
Lavender is ancient, venerable, magical. Native to the Mediterranean, Middle East and India, the popularity of lavender can be traced over 2500 years. The Ancient Egyptians made perfumes with lavender and used it for embalming; when Tutankhamun's tomb was opened traces of lavender were found and its scent was even still detected.
Lavender’s medicinal and insect-repellent properties have been known for centuries: it was prescribed in 50AD by Greek surgeon Dioscorides in his De Materia Medica, a comprehensive encyclopedia of medicinal herbs and plants. Dioscorides knew that lavender protected against plague (although he didn’t know why: plague-carrying fleas are repelled by the scent) and that it helps wounds heal due to its natural antibacterial and antiseptic properties. The Romans put bunches between their sheets to guard against bedbugs and washed their clothes with it to ward off moths and lice (the name may be derived from the Latin word lavare, to wash, although there’s also an alternative etymological theory based on the flower’s blue tint).
Lavender is steeped in royal history: King Charles VI of France insisted on having lavender herbal pillows wherever he went, and King Louis XIV bathed in scented lavender water. Queen Elizabeth I of England was partial to a lavender flower conserve, and carried posies of lavender and had it scattered in her path to fend off stenches and the plague. Queen Victoria favoured lavender jelly rather than mint with her roast mutton, and was reportedly fond of lavender scent, even appointing an official "Purveyor to the Queen". Queen Victoria’s liking for lavender encouraged all fine English ladies to follow suit, and demand fuelled the burgeoning English lavender industry.
In 1910 French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé (re)discovered the healing properties of lavender and other herbs after he badly burned his hand in a lab accident. This inspired him to experiment with essential oils during the First World War on soldiers in the military hospitals, and he noted an increase in the rate of healing in wounds treated with essential oils. Gattefossé also developed the idea that essential oils had psychological effects, and is generally regarded as the father of Aromatherapy.