Of Herbs and Flowers

by Joelle Steele

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People have been enjoying the sweet fragrance and healing effects of flowers and herbs since ancient times. They probably began using them because of their fragrance alone, since many of the flowers and herbs used in the early days were so exceptionally strong and pungent.


Aromatic herbs and flowers were once held to the head to relieve a headache or affixed to a wound to speed up healing. This is still done today in many native cultures throughout the world. The strong scent of the leaf resins was believed to be antibiotic, and people often carried leaves with them in small bags which they inhaled if they felt ill or were somewhere that others were ill or living in filth or unventilated quarters.

To ward off disease, it was common practice to fumigate one's house with many different kinds of fragrant herbs and flowers such as aloe, angelica, cinnamon, rosemary, sage, and thyme. While we don't generally use herbs for fumigation these days, the smell of cinnamon in a home provides a comforting feeling to most who inhale it, as do scents such as vanilla and lavender.

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Our ancestors often slept on pillows stuffed with hops for a more restful sleep, the hops having a narcotic affect. And to this day, you can still purchase pillows stuffed with hops and other sleep-inducing flowers and herbs, such as lavender. Other scents, such as sweet basil, were believed to evoke positive changes in temperament, and wilted strawberry leaves were considered to produce an exhilarating effect in those who inhaled their aroma.


In the old days, people didn't bathe very often, weren't very fastidious housekeepers, and lived in close proximity to each other and to their farm animals and pets. As a result, pests such as lice and fleas were a common problem. To repel lice, they sprinkled powdered seeds of love-in-a-mist into their hair. To repel fleas — which they believed carried the plague — they strewed their floors with rue and sprinkled powdered rue on themselves.


The first use of flowers and herbs for their scent alone was in strewing. The petals and leaves of plants such as basil, chamomile, hyssop, lavender, saffron, sage, and thyme were scattered over the floors of churches, courtrooms, and other public places where the mostly unbathed people congregated in close proximity to each other. As these people walked on the floors, the sweet and pungent aromas of the petals and leaves were released to mask their offensive body odors.

Scented flowers and herbs were not used specifically for personal perfume until the beginning of the 17th century, at which time "sweet waters" came into use for hygienic purposes. These early perfumes were made of the dried leaves and petals of the most highly aromatic plants, such as carnations, cinnamon, dill, irises, lilies, lotuses, myrrh, narcissus, roses, saffron, spikenard, sweet flag, and sweet marjoram. To keep the sweet waters' scents from evaporating too quickly, a variety of plant and animal oils, resins, and gums were added into the mix.

Since some scents, such as white jasmine, were believed to produce sensual effects, their use by a woman was frowned upon in more conservative societies. It was also believed by early American settlers to be frivolous, and a woman who used it to entice a man might find herself subject to a dunking.

Many herbs, such as lavender and peppermint, can lower the air temperature in a room, and in ancient times, as today, some people use them to cool off rooms during the heat of summer. They also stuffed their pillows and cushions with dried leaves and petals of agrimony, crocus, and woodruff, and sprinkled their bedding with perfumed powders so that they would be absorbed by the skin during the night.


If you decide to fill your home with the scent of herbs and flowers, do it the natural way with the real thing, not those artificial aromatic sprays and devices that start to go bad and smell acrid after only a short while.

In general, the most fragrant flowers are usually white, so jasmine, gardenias, and roses are good choices. Harvest them in the early mornings, just before sunrise, to protect the oils from evaporating in the sunlight and heat of the day. Bundle them up by the lowest parts of their stems and hang them upside down from the ceiling for about two to three weeks, or until the petals and leaves are completely dry and the stems are brittle. Then you can remove the petals and leaves and use them as potpourri or stuff them into some pillows to provide a fresh scent for your home.

This article last updated: 11/20/2003.