Henna is a flowering plant, commonly found in the semi-arid, tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. The henna plant (Lawsonia inermis) is the only species of the genus Lawsonia and belongs to the family Lythraceae. The leaves of this plant possess a red dye molecule called lawsone, which has the ability to bond with protein. Hence, the dye from this plant has been used through the centuries to color the skin, hair and nails and also fabrics like silk and wool. The word ‘henna’ is used to denote the dried powder made from the leaves of the henna plant, or the plant itself. It has been observed that the leaves in the top shoots, which are younger, in comparison to those in the lower parts of the plant, have the strongest dye. These leaves are dried and powdered to form the highest grade henna.
Henna Plant – Physical Features
As stated earlier, henna is a flowering plant, which can be in the form of a tall shrub or a small tree. It can grow to a height of two to six meters with numerous branchlets, which have spines on their tips. The elliptical-shaped leaves of this plant have tapered ends and are arranged in an opposite manner. This plant produces small white flowers and seeds in the form of brownish capsules. The dye molecule, lawsone, found in the henna plant is primarily concentrated in the leaves. Usually, the leaves are harvested during the flowering season.
According to some researchers, the history of henna can be traced back to the bronze age. It is believed that henna body art and hair coloring were practiced by the people of that period. Another contention is that henna hair dye was used for the first time by the ancient Egyptians. One of the theories regarding the use of henna is that this plant is native to places with hot climates. People used to crush this leaves and apply the paste on their palms and feet in order to cool their bodies. Gradually, people started using it for cosmetic purposes. It is also said that it was the inhabitants of the Middle East who started crushing the leaves of this plant to the powder form and from there the use of henna spread to Europe. In India, Pakistan and some of the neighboring countries, henna is known as ‘Mehendi’ and has been used throughout the centuries as an indispensable part of various festivals and occasions. The application of henna has become a traditional custom in these countries.
Henna is used for hair coloring, for body tattooing and for coloring the finger nails and palms. It is also used in some shampoos and conditioners. The flowers of this plant is used to make perfumes. Some people place these flowers in between garments to impart a soothing aroma to the clothes. This practice is also beneficial in warding off moths and other insects from destroying the fabric. Henna is also used in traditional medicines in many parts of the world. It is believed that it can cure burns, cuts and bruises and swellings. It is also believed to have antifungal and anti-bacterial properties. Traditionally, henna was used to decorate the hands of brides during wedding celebrations, for hair coloring and in the form of herbal medicine. But, now the whole scenario has changed and this herb is used for body tattooing and skin painting. This herb has also found its way to leading cosmetic companies as an ingredient in shampoos, hair tonics and conditioners.
Henna, the use of which was limited to some parts of the world, has spread everywhere. Earlier, people used to wonder what is henna, but now, almost everyone is familiar with this product and its uses. As in the case of henna hand designs, body painting, tattooing and hair coloring are also in vogue. The popularity of henna is so widespread that this plant is now commercially cultivated in many parts of the world.