MAKE: My Night With Henna
I’m going to share a little secret desire of mine...for the last two decades, I have spent a bit of time thinking about getting a tattoo. Yes, two decades and still no tattoo. Lots of reasons for my lack of follow through:
It’s painful, and I am a complete wuss when it comes to pain. I mean, seriously, needles are involved!
I don’t like the idea of injecting ink into my skin.
It costs money and time, and I am prudent with both.
I am at an age where gravity is winning the skin game…you know, the sagging pockets of skin and muscle so tattoo placement needs to be strategic.
It’s so permanent. I adore variety and change and the tattoo represents a decision in time. Is that why so many people have multiple tattoos?
Which all leads to my night with henna…
My local library offered a free presentation and demonstration by a henna artist and about 15 women of all ages showed up. The artist, Wendy Rover, of Roving Horse Henna, offered a spirited and educational presentation on the botanical, historical and cultural background of the plant commonly known as henna.
Wait, it’s a plant? That surprises many people. I had some experience with henna as a natural hair coloring so I knew it was a plant. And I was aware it was used as a body decoration in some cultures. But Wendy’s presentation offered a grander and richer appreciation for the plant.
HENNA LIKES IT HOT
Henna (Lawsonia inermis) is a member of the Lythraceae Family which also contains the loosestrife species and the delicious pomegranate. It grows as a tall shrub or tree and is native to areas in northern Africa and southern Asia where soils dry out for long periods of time. It thrives in 100 plus degrees Fahrenheit and wilts when the temperatures drop under 50 degrees Fahrenheit (sounds like some Arizonians I know). In fact, the hotter the climate, the more potent the dye.
Henna is the only species in the genus Lawsonia, which is named after the hennotannic acid called lawsone and that's what creates the red-orange dye found in the leaves.
HENNA’S ANCIENT HISTORY
Humans have been decorating and coloring their bodies for thousands of years and henna is one of the plants historically used. Anthropological findings show evidence of henna use as far back as 9000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Early Egyptians used henna to cover up the gray hair (which it does remarkably well). More recently, Queen Elizabeth I hennaed her hair and comedienne Lucille Ball, promoted her use of a henna as a hair coloring when she starred in the 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy.
Have you ever wondered how humans learned about plants various properties? Scholars believe that humans observed both wild and domesticated animals' use of plants. In the case of henna, the hypothesis is that cows and goats ate the budding leaves, which produced a red-orange stain around the animal’s mouth. Herders would have certainly noticed that that coloring around their animals mouths, and would likely find their hands stained after investigating the red-orange mouths of their animals (Jones, 2016).
They likely noticed that henna has a natural cooling affect on the human body and perhaps the tradition of henna-staining soles of feet began as a way of soothing hot, tired feet. Henna not only stains hair, skin and nails but also conditions them. Like many plants that offered medicinal and cosmetic uses, henna's popularity and spread of its use was directly connected to the migration of people to different cultures and the early caravan commerce system across Africa and Asia that included spices and other unique plants.
HENNA AS MEDICINE
The Ebers Papyrus is an early Egyptian herbal materia medica of 900 remedies and demonstrated a thorough knowledge of henna, both botanically and medicinally. One aspect of this knowledge that I found fascinating is the distinctions made about where the plants were grown and when they were harvested (Jones, 2016). The soil, moisture and weather affected the henna plants potency. In the world of wine, this is called terroir and its concept of geographical influence is being extended to other plants.
Henna has multiple properties: anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, a cooling agent for inflammation and a topical analgesic for joint pain and headaches. Though typically not inhaled or digested, there is some historical evidence it was used as an intestinal purgative. Henna also has sun-blocking properties. As with any medicinal applications of plants, careful research is necessary to ensure that it is a safe practice for you.
HENNA AS ART
Cosmetically, henna is used by both men and women. North African men wear henna on their skin and hair for protection. (The Prophet Mohammed was said to have dyed his beard with henna.) As an art form, its rise as a medium for body art developed significantly among women. Henna became associated with rites of passage and celebrations like weddings and carried the burden of protection from evil spirits. In those early years, women, often gathered in sex-segregated groups, were the primary users and storytellers of henna and its magical powers to evoke feelings of joy, compassion and love. This tradition of women sharing the power of plants is a common one found throughout herbal lore.
With the promise of good luck and fertility, bridal henna is a historical tradition from the Arabian Islamic culture that spread among cultures as the Arab Empire grew and includes Muslims, Christians, Jews, Roma, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, and Hindus and others who had access to the henna plant. Bridal henna is also referred to as The Night of Henna, Mehndi Raat, Sangeet Night, Chand Raat, and Lailet al Hinna, is a traditional celebration for the bride and groom and their famiies, (and often, entire villages) that includes food, games, dancing and hours of elegant and intricate henna art performed on the bride’s hands and arms. As part of the associated good luck of henna, it's believed that as long as the henna art remains on, a bride does not have to do housework!
HOW HENNA WORKS
With the modern migration of these cultures throughout the world, henna has seen a re-birth of sorts for cosmetic uses, medicinal applications and cultural practice. World-wide access is just one click away!
Henna leaves are dried and ground and then made into a paste using lemon juice, and sugar, which is left to ferment a bit overnight and then a monoterpene alcohol is added. Monoterpene alcohol acts as a solvent that helps the lawsone molecule to bind with skin and helps with the oxidation process. Modern henna artists use essential oils of plants that are high in these alcohols. The chemical constituents of essential oils differ widely and as a result, will individually influence the color and duration of the stain.
Henna binds permanently to keratin and proteins and when applied to hair and nails, it must be grown out rather than removed. Henna also binds to the top layer of skin but you may remember learning that our top layer of skin consists of dead cells. Henna designs on skin slowly disappear through the nonstop process of exfoliation. Most henna body art lasts 7-14 days, gradually fading and changing color to light orange.
ORANGE HEAD LICE
During Wendy’s presentation, she mentioned that henna is effective against ringworm, dandruff and head lice. Our small group of younger-than-me women were immediately interested in a reality for many parents: getting rid of head lice from their children's hair. Wendy explained that the paste not only kills the adult lice but colors the nits (eggs), making them easy to pick out. Of course, your child's hair will also turn some shade of orangish-red!
NOT QUITE A TATTOO BUT BETTER
Finally, I got my first “tattoo” though henna should not be associated with the art of modern tattooing because of its unique historical and cultural background. After her engaging presentation, Wendy offered to do a small and unique henna design for each participant. Her 20 years of experience shined: she efficiently created a beautiful temporary henna design on each person’s hand/arm while sharing more information and a few stories about her experience as a traditional henna artist in America.
One of my favorite aspects of plant study is the historical and cultural impact of plants on people. Henna is a fascinating plant that became the center of a historical body art with a range of cultural meanings. I want to send out a big thank you to Wendy for her review and corrections of this post as well as her donation of her beautiful photos. While writing this I located several additional online references:
http://www.hennapage.com/ - probably the most complete compilation of articles on henna
http://www.hennaforhair.com/ - the products page of the above link
http://eshkolhakofer.blogspot.ca - a blog dedicated to both historical & modern of henna art
To book a henna party or session in the Portland, Oregon area: www.rovinghorse.com
For those not in the Portland OR area, there are henna artists located throughout North America; simply do a search for one in your area.
PHOTO CREDITS: © Pipa100 | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-moroccan-henna-leaves-powder-bowl-image44697564#res16342271">Moroccan Henna Leaves And Powder Photo</a>
Author: Sue Kusch
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at Herbmentor.com and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at www.plantsnpeople.com.