14 August 2023

5 things you didn’t know about henna

Fascinating facts about an ancient plant that’s just to dye for.

By Eddie Johnston

Long green oval shaped leaves on the henna tree

The floral designs of henna skin art are as intricate as they are timeless.

This plant-based dye has a rich history of use on both skin and hair, as well as fabrics. 

Read on to discover more about this incredible plant. 

1. Henna has been used as a skin and hair dye for thousands of years

For millennia, people all over the world have been making use of henna leaves to create dyes for skin, hair and fabrics.

Researchers have found evidence that the ancient Egyptians dyed their fingernails red using henna. The hair of a 3,500 year old Egyptian mummy, Ahmose-Henuttamehu, is dyed a bright red at the sides, which could have potentially been achieved with henna.

We also know the Romans used the plant to dye hair, just as it is used today.

Henna dye comes from leaves, which are dried, crushed and sifted, and then made into a paste with water, or an acidic liquid like tea or lemon juice, before being applied to the skin or hair.

A man standing in a doorway, with a bright orange beard and chest hair
A man with a henna-dyed beard, DFID - UK Department for International Development on Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

2. Henna comes from a tree

If henna comes from plant leaves, which plant leaves in particular?

Henna is derived from the henna tree (Lawsonia inermis) which is found across Africa and West Asia. It can grow as either a tree or a large shrub, between 2 to 8 metres in height. 

The all-important leaves are green, oval shaped, and grow in pairs along the thorn-free branches.

The flowers are small, only 3 mm across, with white oval petals, and grow in large clusters at the end of the branches. 

The species name, inermis, means toothless, a reference to the lack of thorns along the branches.

Long green oval shaped leaves on the henna tree
Henna tree (Lawsonia inermis) leaves, © Pradeep Rajatewa
Small white henna flowers
Henna tree (Lawsonia inermis) leaves, © Pradeep Rajatewa

3. Henna contains a special substance that is the secret to its dyeing power

Contained in the leaves of the henna plant is a unique compound known as lawsone.

This substance, also known as hennotannic acid, reacts with the protein keratin, which is a key component of our hair and skin.

As we then shed the lawsone-containing skin and hair cells, the orangey-red colour disappears.

As well as being found in rich concentrations in henna leaves, it also can be found in the shells of walnuts (Juglans regia) and the flowers of the water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes).

Lawsone is very good at absorbing UV light, and certain preparations of it can be used as a sunscreen to prevent skin damage.

A cluster of several six petal light pink water hyacinth flowers, each with a yellow spot near the centre
Water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes) flower © Egon Krogsgaard
A brown wrinkled walnut inside a green fruit surrounded by leaves
Walnut (Juglans regia) fruit, Böhringer Friedrich on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.5

4. Henna dye plays a role in a number of religions and cultures

One of henna’s most well-known uses is to create temporary artworks on the skin.

In many Muslim countries, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet are decorated in beautifully intricate patterns for celebrations like Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, and marriage ceremonies.

Additionally, dying the beard using henna is considered sunnah in Islamic tradition – practices of the Islamic prophet Muhammad that are used as a model for Muslims to follow.

Jewish peoples in Morocco use henna in their traditional ceremonies, particularly weddings, where family elders smear henna on the palms of the bride and groom to symbolically bestow the new couple with good health, fertility and security. 

This tradition is still practised in India and Pakistan, and is meant to give the bride and groom a good life after marriage, and is traditionally considered to provide protection from demons.

In many countries, such as Egypt and Malaysia, henna is painted onto the bride-to-be the night before her wedding.

A pair of hands, palms upturned, covered in intricate floral patterns in dark orange
Temporary henna artwork on hands, Kritzolina on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
A foot with intricate floral patterns in orange ink in a gold high heel shoe
Henna artwork on a foot, Bjørn Christian Tørrissen in Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

5. Henna may be the identity of a mysterious plant from the Qur’ān

In the 76th chapter or surah of the Qur’ān, called Al-Insān, there is a mention of a pleasant-smelling, fragrant plant known as kāfūr

Āyah 5 of Al-Insān states: Indeed, the righteous will drink from a cup (of wine) whose mixture (Arb. mizāj) is of camphor (kāfūr). 

Many scholars of Islam believe that kāfūr refers to camphor, which is gathered from different laurel trees, most notably camphor laurel (Cinnamomum camphora). 

But there are others who suggest that the true identity of kāfūr of the Qur’ān is in fact henna. 

Dr M. Iqtedar Farooqi suggests that the camphor we know today would not have been known to the people of the Arab World at the time the Qur’ān was scribed.  

Adding weight to the argument, the Hebrew word ko’pher or copher sounds similar to the Greek kapros or cypros, which is used by ancient philosopher Pliny to describe the henna tree.

Dr Shahina Ghazanfar's book, Plants of the Quran, suggests that in the context of the Qur’ān, it could be either! If the mixture (of wine) refers to its colour, then it is henna, but if the mixture refers to its smell (or taste) it would be camphor.

Watercolour painting of pomegranate flowers and fruit

Visit Plants of the Qur’ān

A collection of botanical paintings by Sue Wickison, on display for the first time at Kew.