Today is National Fragrance Day – a fairly new invention, but a nice one to add to the calendar, especially when spring is on its way and we’re starting to see flowers appear. I expect the intention is that we all ‘try a new scent’, as magazines are always suggesting, but I’m a hopeless person to market to, as my favourite fragrance is lavender.
Lots of people dismiss is as an ‘old ladies’’ scent, but it’s fresh and clean and natural. The Latin word ‘lavere’, ‘to wash’, is the origin of the English word lavender, which seems very suitable. As well as scenting soaps, dried lavender can be tucked between sheets to keep them fresh, although if you want to avoid scratchy blooms in bed a lavender bag is probably a good idea. It’s an easy plant to grow and harvest – just cut some stems and pop them in a paper bag or envelope somewhere warm to dry.
The most famous name connected to lavender is Yardley’s, a London perfume company which has been making scented soaps for nearly 250 years. There’s a tantalising hint of an even older history, since 150 years before that a man named Yardley obtained the contract to provide lavender-scented soap for the city of London, but records of this seem to have been lost in the Great Fire of 1666. Since 1770, though, the firm has made and sold its famous soaps and other toilet preparations, and it holds several Royal Warrants. It’s not the only firm to specialise in lavender; I’ve visited Norfolk Lavender near Heacham, where there are great fields of purple lavender; the air is scented and the bees seem drugged with so much richness. Their lavender oil is extracted by a distilling process, and the tea room serves lavender-scented scones. You can even make lavender sugar, like vanilla sugar, by placing several stems into a jar of sugar and letting the scent permeate the sugar.
Even if you don’t like the scent, you’ll like the colour – lavender is a soft pastel purple which goes with a great many other colours. It was a popular shade in the Regency, and worn too as ‘half-mourning’, when black gowns could be put away but society frowned on colour.
The folk-song ‘Lavender’s Blue, dilly, dilly, lavender’s green; When I am King, dilly, dilly, you shall be Queen” dates to the 17thc, although earlier versions are bawdier than the nursery rhyme we know today. Recently it was sung by Lily James in the newest Disney version of ‘Cinderella’, which brought it to the attention of a new generation of children. I hope they’ll remember it as they grow older, and look out for lavender; there’s so much more to it than just being a ‘old ladies’ scent’.