Henna is a much branched shrub that grows to a height of about ten feet. Leaves are small and elliptic. The individual flowers, borne in the spring, are small but produced in large masses and are extremely fragrant. The dried flowers retain the heavy scent. Today henna is often grown as an ornamental.
The henna plant, Lawsonia inermis, is probably native to North Africa but may have been grown in hot oases such as En Gedi. This is a beautiful oasis between the Dead Sea and the precipitous cliffs of the Judean Desert is a place where many medicinal and cosmetic plants such as balsam and henna were grown. The climate is tropical and there is an abundant supply of water. What a beautiful allusion in the Song of Songs 1:14. "My beloved is unto me a cluster of henna flowers in the vineyards of En Gedi." In the middle of a severe desert one finds this beautiful oasis and here, in the vineyard, is the henna plant with its masses of white, fragrant flowers! The intense fragrance of the henna is also suggested in Songs of Songs 4:13 where it is mentioned with spikenard probably, Nardostachys jatamansi, that is not native to Israel nor was it cultivated there but was imported from India and surrounding countries.
The main use of the henna is as a cosmetic. Today the highest quality henna in the Middle East comes from Iran. The leaves are dried and crushed into a fine powder. This powder is mixed with water and allowed to sit for two days to make a paste that forms a reddish dye and is then applied to the fingernails, hands, and feet as an ornamentation often with intricate designs. Henna is also used to die the hair. These uses are very common in several countries, most notably Sudan. In Bible days the cosmetic use may have been even more widespread. The reference in Deuteronomy 21:12 may allude to the need for the colored hair and nails to grow out. From this single plant we have two diverse uses: fragrance and a cosmetic for the outward ornamentation of the body.