Whenever you take a whiff of lavender, you’re connecting to a long and ongoing history. The plant is thought to be named after washerwomen, or “lavenders” in Middle English because one of its first uses was as a scent for laundry. (And still today, it’s a popular fragrance for detergents and cleaning products.) Renaissance royalty also supposedly added the plant to their tubs to bathe in the pleasant aroma (again, still a thing—and not just amongst royals).
With such a storied past, it’s no wonder that lavender is one of today’s most-studied essential oils. Scientists have pegged many of its therapeutic properties to its high terpene count.* Terpenes are aromatic phytonutrient compounds that give plants, herbs, and trees their signature scent.
In the wild, terpenes help organisms survive and reproduce: Plants use them as defense mechanisms, flowers churn them out to attract pollinators, and trees even emit them to warn each other of incoming threats. Everything down to microscopic bacteria and fungi seems to interact using fragrant terpenes, leading researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology to call dub them the world’s most widespread communication medium.
And while we aren’t always aware of it, these compounds are constantly communicating with us, too. “Even though terpenes come from trees, mushrooms, and herbs that are communicating with one another, our immune system can also decode them,” forest medicine researcher Clemens G. Arvay, MSc previously wrote on mbg. “Like other plants, we respond to terpenes by strengthening our body’s defenses.”*
Some of the main terpenes in lavender oil are linalool, linalyl acetate, cineol, and camphor. When the plant is distilled for human use, these fragrant active compounds are preserved. They’re what gives a vial of lavender essential its nose-thrilling kick and therapeutic qualities—which we’re learning more about by the day.*