The oldest lavender in the world comes from the Eastern Mediterranean. Alix Norman discovers the strange power of this fragrant plant
Lavender often makes us think of England – of country cottages and beloved grandmothers. And yet this fragrant plant originated not in the gardens of Blighty but right here in the eastern Mediterranean.
Today, lavender fields are associated with Provence, with Norfolk and Washington (the lavender capital of America). But the very first species, the plant from which all 300 of our modern-day varieties originated, was called Lavendula stoechas. And, come spring, it can still be found carpeting the foothills of Cyprus.
“This wild lavender is indigenous to the island,” explains professional herbalist and founder of CyHerbia Botanical Park Miranda Tringis. “To this day, it dots our hillsides, growing wild and fragrant anywhere with an elevation of over 300 metres. And it also tends to flower much earlier in the year than modern varieties: by the time the better known Lavandula angustifolia comes into bloom, the original herb has moved on to the next stage of its annual cycle.”
While Miranda is highly knowledgeable on all species of lavender, it’s the modern Lavandula angustifolia that’s her personal favourite. And in June, as this fragrant species transforms the gardens of Cyherbia into a tapestry of amethyst, visitors from all over the island flock to the park to share her love of the flower.
“There’s a very specific window in which this species of lavender flowers,” she says with a knowledge borne of years of study. “In Cyprus, that’s never before June 1, never later than June 15.”
Over the years, Miranda has learnt to predict to the day when the darling buds of May will burst into full June bloom: in 2023, she reveals, the late spring means we’re looking at June 9 or 10. “And that’s why,” she adds, “we’ve set the annual Lavender Festival between June 10 and July 9; the lavender will continue to bloom until end of July.”
Each year, Cyherbia builds on past festivals, introducing new activities and excitements to their purpled programme. While long-standing favourites such as the lavender photoshoots and lavender oil extraction remain, this June, we’ll also see an Instapoetry workshop that combines poetry with photography; an Elysian Mysteries clinic from a well-known psychotherapist; and various workshops in which visitors can make their own lavender scrubs, bath teas, soaps, and candles. Kids’ crafts and storytelling with the Lavender Fairy will also be offered on weekends.
“But the main attraction,” Miranda notes, “is always the lavender gardens themselves. Because while, medicinally speaking, lavender is indeed a panacea, it also does something miraculous for the soul. Something I’ve experienced time and time again…
“You’ll see a car arrive at the gates of Cyherbia,” she discloses. “A family piles out, hot and bothered, tired and thirsty. The kids are over-excited, the parents stressed – it’s a recipe for disaster. Then, they catch the scent of lavender. They sniff the air. And as they’re drawn into the gardens, a miraculous change begins to happen…
“Slowly, gently, their body language calms. Smiles form; voices soften. And before long, you would hardly recognise the formerly flustered family. It is,” she muses, “almost a miracle. There’s something very odd about Cyprus lavender; I’ve no idea what causes this phenomenon. But experiential evidence would suggest that simply being among living lavender does something remarkable for the soul.
“Of course, physically speaking, lavender’s incredible effects are well-documented,” she continues. The ancient Egyptians valued lavender for its aromatic properties, using it in embalming and bathing rituals – obviously not at the same time! The Romans lauded lavender for its healing and antiseptic qualities, using it to deter insects, relieve indigestion, headaches and sore throats, and to cleanse their clothes. “The word ‘lavender’,” Miranda adds, “derives from the Latin ‘lavare’, to wash.”
The ancient Greeks prized the plant’s gentle scent, and wrote lengthy tracts in defence of their preferred methods of anointment: Anacreon advocated the breast as the best place for a little lavender oil given its proximity to the heart; Diogenes preferred anointing his legs, suggesting ‘when you anoint your head with perfume, it flies away in the air and birds only get the benefit!’
Greek writer and encyclopediast Pliny the Elder went one step further, suggesting that lavender was an excellent cure for menstrual problems, upset stomachs, kidney disorders, jaundice and dropsy. And in ancient Arabia, Ibn Sina (one of the most renowned fathers of early modern medicine) wrote extensively about the healing uses of this wondrous plant.
“With its incredible versatility, it’s no surprise that lavender – whatever its variety – has been celebrated for centuries,” says Miranda. “It has countless applications, many of which we are still discovering to this day, and no side-effects; it’s one of the safest herbs and essential oils in existence.”
At Cyherbia, as the rows of Lavandula angustifolia spring into bloom, you can learn all about the plant’s uses both traditional and modern. But as you take the Lavender Meditation Walk, revel in the Lavender Gardens, or enjoy a glass of lavender lemonade overlooking the Herb Gardens, you’ll find there’s more to this curative than mere physical benefit.
“Being immersed in lavender is,” says Miranda, “a form of therapy I can’t quite explain. It’s akin, I think, to shinrin-yoku, the forest bathing of Japan; it’s similar to grounding, and to Zen meditation. And like these practices, it’s difficult to explain to those who’ve never experienced the transformative power of lavender immersion. It’s an invitation to slow down, reconnect with nature, and rediscover a sense of inner balance.
“Step into a place of lavender, be it our island’s hillsides covered in age-old Lavendula stoechas, or the fields of Lavandula angustifolia at Cyherbia, and the benefits extend beyond the physical; they reach deep within, nourishing the spirit and reminding us of the beauty and serenity that exists in the world.”
The Cyherbia Lavender Festival takes place from June 10 to July 9. For more information, visit cyherbia.com/lavender-festival