What is Henna?
As the need for natural and organic products increase, the demand for henna has grown tremendously. In recent years, there has been a continuous rave and demand for henna as the tattoo world exploded and people are taking stringent measures to improve and maintain a healthy lifestyle, but what is henna? Henna is a powdered substance produced from the leaves of the henna plant, and is commonly used in traditional festivities, ceremonies, hair care, body art, and for dyeing wool, silk and leather fabrics. In addition to those uses, henna has other exceptional qualities.
The most resourceful part of the henna plant are the leaves which contain an orange-red pigment called lawsone; hence the botanical term, lawsonia inermis (latin). The word henna is English originated from the Arabic word hinna and has different names according to country and language. Below are a few:
Names According to Country
Pakistan - mehndi
Bangladesh - mehndi
India - mehndi
Kashmir - mindi
Portugal - hena
Brazil - hena
Turkey - kina
Croatia - kana
Names According to Language
English - henna, Jamaica Mignonette, Cypress shrub, Camphire
Spanish - alhena
Swahili - uhanoni
Arabic - hina
French - henne
Note: Although henna is called Mehndi in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India; mehndi is actually the process of transferring art to the body using henna.
The history of henna has a long trail, however, hard to trace. There are many conflicting documentation as to its origin. Some historians believe henna is native to the Middle East, others believe its origin is North Africa. Regardless of its origin, centuries ago through migration, trading and other human interactions henna spread throughout the east and west to places such as India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, China, and Japan. However, historians all agree that henna dates back to 3400 BCE as a hair dye and medicine. Bible days denotes henna as being a special plant. Recorded in the book of Solomon, chapter 1:14. Solomon describes his affection for his beloved, as a parallel comparison to the henna plant “My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi.” This supports evidence that henna existed hundreds of years before Christ.Credit: photo credit: Carly & Art via photo pin cc
The Egyptians are known as the first civilization to use henna for art and medicinal purposes. The earliest evidence of henna used in decorating the body and dyeing the hair, were found on the nails and hair of Egyptian mummies. In Syria and India similar wall murals painted with henna were found in caves. Scientific analysis dates them from the 4th and 5th centuries. After the 12th century the use of henna to decorate the body became popular throughout India. As the plant became engrained in the culture so did the intricate and elaborate designs.
Henna holds a special place, in the Muslim religion. Muslims follow the traditions of their prophet Mohammed who was known to frequently dye his beard with henna and encouraged his followers to do the same. He believed the plant was a gift of fortune, and good luck.
For centuries in India and the Arab world, henna has played a very important role in preparation for and during wedding ceremonies which tend to be elaborate, and as customary spans over several weeks. In Pakistan there is a mehndi tradition called Rasm-E-Henna celebrated after both families complete the rituals associated with the tradition, and continues during the marriage ceremony.
The henna plant is a flowering tropical shrub that grows up to 7 ft high and has many spine tip branches. The leaves have a similar shape like an almond, and sprout equally in opposite positions. The leaves and petioles (veins) contain the orange- red (dye) pigment called lawsone. Credit: Wikimedia Commons Young leaves have the highest dye content which is mostly concentrated in the petioles; therefore older leaves have low dye content. The flowers graces the plant in abundance, are delicate, fragrant, and small. Blooms vary from plant to plant in colors of white, yellow, pink or red and form dense clusters at the end of each branch. Approximately a month into the blossoming stage, the plant produces many small round pods with about 40-60 seeds. The bark is a mixture of gray and brown, and serves other purposes.
Cultivating henna is relatively easy and requires little maintenance under the right climatic and soil conditions. Henna thrives in tropical and subtropical regions in climates above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and will survive long periods of drought because of its water storing tissues. Although plants will survive climates between 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit, the dye content and overall quality is usually poor. Attempts to cultivate henna in climates not conducive have proven unsuccessful. Many plants have succumbed to the black root rot fungus as a result of too much moisture, lack of oxygen, and insufficient natural heat. Fine sand or medium composition soils along with intensely hot dry climates are known to produce the best quality henna; as a result of the high dye content consistently found in crops grown in those climates.
The leading growers of henna are India, Pakistan, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan. Not only are they leading growers, but also the leading consumers, with a small percent exported to Europe and North America. However, due to the rise in demand some farming communities are shifting in favor of cultivating henna because maintenance is low in comparison to other plants, and the financial gains are rapidly increasing. In countries such as India, Pakistan and Egypt, traditional farming methods along with skilled labourers are essential to producing the best crops. In preparation for planting the soil is carefully examined and manure added to retain soil nutrients. Generally the seeds are sown in nurseries and then transplanted to the fields, in rows adequately spaced for growth and weeding. Some farming communities add small amounts of fertilizer to enrich the soil, while others do not, because years of reaping bountiful high quality crops is a testament to the richness of the soil. Henna takes approximately 4-5 years to produce flowers and seeds or reach maturity.
Harvesting varies according to region, but definitely during the flowering season. In India and Pakistan harvesting takes place during the months of April, May and October-November and is usually determined by the monsoon rains. In regions where there is ample rainfall, harvesting is twice per year due to the low dye content. In areas that are consistently hot and dry, harvesting is three or four times per year before the rainy season. During winter some farmers return to planting bananas, sugarcane and vegetables, in addition to other crops.
Harvesting henna involves cutting off the new growth, and separating the leaves and flowers. The leaves are then sorted, carefully examined to remove defects, placed in an open area to dry, and afterwards transported to the manufacturing plants.
Manufacturing & Exporting
Upon reaching the plant the crops undergo a rigorous process of procurement. A semi automatic sifter helps to remove debris, stems, seeds, stones, stalks, defective leaves and all forms of matter that does not meet specific standards. The plants are then transferred to machines where the pulverizing process of crushing then grinding the leaves and sifting for further refinement begins. As soon as the refining process is complete, the powder undergoes another process of removing moisture before lab testing begins. After the lab test is complete, and approval granted, packaging ensues followed by delivery and exporting.
A few years ago, just a handful of people in North American were familiar with henna, and most associated with tattoos in one way or another, but today, that is changing. The benefits of using henna is becoming increasingly popular all over the continent. Celebrities in particularly musicians, who flaunt their tattoos, have brought much awareness to the art. More people are discovering that henna is not only for dyeing the hair but has far- reaching benefits in growing and strengthening the hair, eliminating dandruff and many scalp issues. In addition, it is known to prevent acne and improve the overall appearance of the skin. In countries such as India, Pakistan Bangladesh and others, henna is widely used in preparation for wedding ceremonies, for dyeing the hair, in rituals, and traditional festivities. Henna is also widely used in holistic and aromatherapy treatments. The flowers are special ingredients in many beauty products, such as soaps, oils and perfumes.
Some of the Many Uses for Henna
Decorating the body
Dyeing the hair
Condition, strengthening, nourish and promote hair growth
Decorate brides in Arab countries
Used in skin and hair products such as lotions and shampoos, perfumes, oils
Cooling agent on burns, heat exhaustion, and for cooling body heat
As a repellant
Used by the cosmetic industry as a anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent
There is no such thing as “black henna” The so-call “black henna” is a mixture of other compounds such as para-phenylenediamine, an organic compound found in hair dyes which will stain black quickly and could result in severe allergic reaction. According to Wikipedia, dried indigo combined with henna to dyed hair black, gave cause to the misnomer “black henna”