Lawsonia inermis (Lythraceae)
Henna plant (Loosestrife Family)
Origin: Tropical Savannahs from Africa to the Pacific Rim
The Henna plant has been used by humans since the bronze age to dye bodies, clothing and companion animals. The word “Mendhi” refers to the act of painting the human body especially the hands with intricate designs using henna paste. The practice can be found in almost every ancient culture where the plant grows, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, or Jewish. The plant has medicinal uses as well, as a coagulant, a poultice for burns and skin disorders, and as an antifungal agent which made it useful for leather preservation. Women throughout history, from Cleopatra to Lucille Ball, have used the plant to dye their hair red; the use of henna has surged among young brides in western countries (traditionally henna paste is applied to a bride right before the wedding).
The flowers of the plant are intensely fragrant, with petals ranging from white to red, depending on the variety. The flowers look very similar to those of the Crape Myrtle, a very popular street tree here in Sarasota. Oil from the flowers has been used to make perfume. The paste is actually made from the leaves: dried, powdered and allowed to sit for a period of time, then mixed with lemon juice or some other mild acid. This activates the principle staining agent, lawsone, which bonds to the proteins in the outer dermal layer. This layer is thickest on our hands, especially our palms.
Because of its intense fragrance, the Henna plant at Selby Gardens is located in our fragrance garden by the Christy Paine Mansion. You can’t miss it; the flowers are always covered with bees. This particular plant was grown from seed and was donated to the Gardens by Kevin Walker, a dedicated associate and friend of Selby Gardens who recently passed away.
Text by David Troxell