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HENNA, the Persian name for a small shrub found in India, Persia, the Levant and along the African coasts of the Mediterranean, where it is frequently cultivated. It is the Lawsonia alba of botanists, and from the fact that young trees are spineless, while older ones have the branchlets hardened into spines, it has also received the names of Lawsonia inermis and L. spinosa. It forms a slender shrubby plant of from 8 to 10 ft. high, with opposite lance-shaped smooth leaves, which are entire at the margins, and bears small white four-petalled sweet-scented flowers disposed in panicles. Its Egyptian name is Khenna, its Arabic name Al Khanna, its Indian name Mendee, while in England it is called Egyptian privet, and in the West Indies, where it is naturalized, Jamaica mignonette.

Henna or Henne is of ancient repute as a cosmetic. This consists of the leaves of the Lawsonia powdered and made up into a paste; this is employed by the Egyptian women, and also by the Mahommedan women in India, to dye their fingernails and other parts of their hands and feet of an orange-red colour, which is considered to add to their beauty. The colour lasts for three or four weeks, when it requires to be renewed. It is moreover used for dyeing the hair and beard, and even the manes of horses; and the same material is employed for dyeing skins and morocco-leather a reddish-yellow, but it contains no tannin. The practice of dyeing the nails was common amongst the Egyptians, and not to conform to it would have been considered indecent. It has descended from very remote ages, as is proved by the evidence afforded by Egyptian mummies, the nails of which are most commonly stained of a reddish hue. Henna is also said to have been held in repute amongst the Hebrews, being considered to be the plant referred to as camphire in the Bible (Song of Solomon i. 14, iv. 13). " The custom of dyeing the nails and palms of the hands and soles of the feet of an iron-rust colour with henna," observes Dr J. Forbes Royle, " exists throughout the East from the Mediterranean to the Ganges, as well as in northern Africa. In some parts the practice is not confined to women and children, but is also followed by men, especially in Persia. In dyeing the beard the hair is turned to red by this application, which is then changed to black by a preparation of indigo. In dyeing the hair of children, and the tails and manes of horses and asses, the process is allowed to stop at the red colour which the henna produces." Mahomet, it is said, used henna as a dye for his beard, and the fashion was adopted by the caliphs. " The use of henna," remarks Lady Calico tt in her Scripture Herbal, " is scarcely to be called a caprice in the East. There is a quality in the drug which gently restrains perspiration in the hands and feet, and produces an agreeable coolness equally conducive to health and comfort." She further suggests that if the Jewish women were not in the habit of using this dye before the time of Solomon, it might probably have been introduced amongst them by his wife, the daughter of Pharaoh, and traces to this probability the allusion to " camphire " in the passages in Canticles above referred to.

The preparation of henna consists in reducing the leaves and young twigs to a fine powder, catechu or lucerne leaves in a pulverized state being sometimes mixed with them. When required for use, the powder is made into a pasty mass with hot water, and is then spread upon the part to be dyed, where it is generally allowed to remain for one night. According to Lady Callcott, the flowers are often used by the Eastern women to adorn their hair. The distilled water from the flowers is used as a perfume.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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