Herbal Spotlight: Lavender

With so many variations of lavender, this guide will help you keep these purple beauties straight.

The Growers Guide

Lavender: The Grower’s Guide By Virginia McNaughton Decipher the true identities of your favorite lavenders with help from this must-have for the lavender grower.

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The world’s longstanding love affair with lavender has been fueled recently by an explosion of new varieties from breeders around the world. The lavender most of us first met was English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), but now we can choose among improved English varieties, other lavender species and crosses that offer fragrance, beauty, tidy growing habits and great appeal as landscape plants. 

Variations on L. angustifolia

Cultivated varieties of English lavender continue to multiply, particularly those with dark purple and pink flowers, as well as compact growers. The most popular of the traditional English lavenders was L. a. ‘Hidcote’, which had the darkest purple flowers. Now that dark purple can be found in several cultivars. L. a. ‘Imperial Gem’ (also called ‘Nana 1’) — although not particularly new — is very similar in appearance to ‘Hidcote’ but with an improved growth habit. It forms a better-shaped bush with dense silver foliage, especially attractive in the winter landscape. The rich, dark purple flowers of ‘Imperial Gem’ top stems that seem to be more robust.

A soon-to-be-available new cultivar, ‘Purple Bouquet’, boasts dark purple flower heads that are larger than ‘Hidcote’ and on longer stems tinged with purple when young. This will add interest to fresh and dried bouquets. If you prefer a smaller cultivar with dark purple flowers, the new  ‘Lavenite Petite’ is a good choice. It grows only to about 15 inches and has shorter stems but a longer flower head with bright violet-blue flowers. Its slightly darker flower buds are ideal for drying.

The traditional soft pink-flowered L. a. ‘Rosea’ (also called ‘Nana Rosea’ or ‘Pink’), had few peers when first introduced prior to 1937. Then along came another pink-flowered cultivar, L. a. ‘Jean Davis’, which even today is hard to distinguish from its predecessor. Now pink-flowered English lavenders afford many choices, including ‘Hidcote Pink’, ‘Little Lottie’, ‘Melissa’, ‘Miss Katherine’ and ‘Coconut Ice’. For hedges, ‘Hidcote Pink’ (pre-1958) is a great choice because the plants are bushy or spherical. Initially opening to very pink flowers, it is stunning in bloom and even afterward, with attractive gray-green foliage.

‘Little Lottie’ is the smallest of the pink-flowered cultivars and forms a tight little mound with fine-textured flower stems. Its daintiness lends itself to container growing or the small garden. It is a good choice for underplanting with roses as a complement or contrast to their color. Also, it looks good throughout the winter months, unlike some whose foliage tends to discolor with winter wetness.

‘Melissa’ has an upright habit similar to  ‘Jean Davis’, with good spikes of pink and white flowers. It is a popular choice for culinary use, thanks to its good floral flavor.  ‘Miss Katherine’ is considered the darkest pink-flowered lavender of all, with an interesting star-shaped marking when the flowers first open. ‘Coconut Ice’ has compact growth and flower buds that initially appear a ghostly white until they open and age to a darker pink. Although all may be used in small hedges, some are better as solitary specimens — especially contrasted with the darker blue-violets and purples of other lavenders or to echo pink or white colors elsewhere in the garden.

Now Appearing: L. stoechas

The greatest number of new cultivars appearing on the American market comes from the species known as Spanish, or French, lavender (L. stoechas). These are the lavenders with the characteristic pinecone-shaped flower heads with long sterile bracts or “rabbit ears” atop them. These new introductions arise from crosses mostly within the species using characteristics of two subspecies: stoechas, a form with virtually no flower stems (1 to 2 inches long at best) and pedunculata, with flower stems 6 to 8 inches long. Both of these subspecies exhibit smooth flower stems. Found in the wild, L. s. subsp. stoechas is endemic to acidic soils and L. s. subsp. pedunculata is endemic to alkaline soils.

The new popularity of these lavenders is due not only to the fact that they are free-blooming from late March to September, but because the diversity of their flower color and the unusual shape of the flower head is exciting and suggestive of butterflies. New Zealand breeders, in particular, have expanded the colors of the top sterile bracts to numerous shades of blue, purple, maroon and white, and have bred contrasting flower colors of very dark purple, deep carmine, sky blue and white.

Not only is the trend among breeders to develop more color combinations, but also to multiply the number of sterile bracts and breeding plants with different growth habits. L. s. ‘Fathead’ exemplifies the wild species, with a plethora of neatly plump and almost round, dark purple flower heads with short, broad, paler purple sterile bracts, which fade to pink as they age.

‘Pukehou’ has a tall and upright habit for a Spanish lavender and is covered with numerous flowers with broad, pale purple bracts on good long stems. In contrast, ‘Evelyn Cadzow’ is compact, growing to about 15 inches tall. Its attractive dense green foliage with dark purple flowers and lighter purple top bracts make it a good choice for a container or small garden.

Growers are offering a few L. stoechas series (‘Madrid Series’, ‘Barcelona’, ‘Willowbridge’). These are characteristically representative of the four major lavender flower colors: blue, purple, pink and white. These series usually contain a bi-color flower, as in L. s. ‘Madrid Blue’ (also called ‘Madrid Sky-blue’) with sky-blue flowers contrasting with whitish sterile bracts. Of these series, ‘Willowbridge Snow’ is a vast improvement over the ‘Alba’ form, with much larger and more numerous flower heads and larger, showier bracts accented with a slight green veining.

I usually let my Spanish lavenders spread at will — sometimes as much as 3 to 4 feet wide — but pruning the plant back after its first bloom by as much as half will keep it in check. This hard pruning also induces the plant to form more lateral branching, which will provide more bloom later on. After such a severe pruning, I deadhead or lightly prune until September, giving the plant a chance to harden off before October’s hard frosts. From my experience, the L. stoechas cultivars are hardier than the Zone 8 to 10 often specified. Winter hardiness is more a factor of wetness and exposure or shelter from cold arctic winds than from actual winter temperature in my Zone 7 garden.

If a new cultivar has a hairy stem, its parentage probably includes the more tender L. viridis. Although not as hardy, this union of L. stoechas and L. viridis has introduced some exciting new cultivars with new colors added to the palette of sterile bracts. L. s. xviridis ‘Van Gogh’ shows the typical L. viridis characteristic of an open-branched plant with very green aromatic foliage and a scent reminiscent of fresh lemons. There the similarity ends: This unusual cultivar has sky-blue flowers rather than the pale yellow of the species, which are a striking contrast with its pale yellow sterile bracts.

Going Commercial: L. xintermedia

The lavandins (L. xintermedia) are the most valuable lavenders for commercial use. Larger than English lavenders, and with a less floral, slightly more camphorous fragrance, lavandins are grown for their oil. The cultivar ‘Grosso’ alone produces 70 percent of the world’s market. Lavandin oils are used chiefly in soaps, detergents and air fresheners. Although they bloom a few weeks later than English lavenders, their heavy production of long-stemmed flowers lends themselves to the fresh-cut and dried markets. They also are used in the production of lavender wands. (To make your own lavender wand, see the article "Lavender Wonders," available on newsstands.)

Introducing new cultivars is limited because lavandins are considered mule hybrids, which means sterile; new cultivars begin with crosses of their original parents, L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. These varieties produce no seed and only can be propagated vegetatively. France is the leading developer of new lavandins, and because its efforts are solely for its own commercial oil needs, France’s cultivars are rarely circulated. The new lavandins appearing in the U.S. market are chiefly from England and New Zealand, which creates confusion in cultivar names.

A case in point is the cultivar L. ‘Impress Purple’, from England, considered to have the darkest flower color of all lavandins. It is identical to a plant known in New Zealand as ‘Arabian Night’. The cultivar ‘Sussex’ distinguishes itself as having the longest peduncles, or flower stems, with flower heads of interrupted or spaced whorls of pale purple flowers (up to 8 inches), which make it appealing to floral arrangers. Its oil has a sweeter or more floral note than other lavandins. (Note: ‘Provence’ has perhaps the sweetest fragrance of all lavandins, but its oil is not suitable for commercial use.)

A new cultivar from France is L. ‘Gros Bleu’, which slowly is being circulated around the Pacific Northwest. It is a very good introduction with much longer flower heads or spikes — as the whorls are separated — than L. ‘Grosso’. It has a decidedly darker color than the popular ‘Grosso’ — almost a navy blue — and is excellent fresh or dried.

A Lavender for All Seasons: L. angustifolia x L. lanata

These lovely crosses between English lavender and wooly lavender (L. lanata) occur only in cultivation. Everything about them is different from other lavenders. They produce stunning aromatic foliage — broad, velvety silver-gray leaves — for year-round pleasure. They definitely look the best of all lavenders in the winter months, even with Oregon’s rainfall. They produce numerous flower spikes with tiny, very dark violet flowers with an unusual but pleasant fragrance. The flower spikes look as if they’re covered with a tiny web.

This lavender can be used in fresh or dried bouquets, and its long, wooly stems are good for making lavender wands. These varieties produce no viable seed, so propagation is by vegetative methods only. They are best used either as specimens or in mass plantings for brilliant foliage contrast. They bridge the blooming gap between English lavenders and lavandins to create a nonstop lavender bloom from spring to fall. ‘Richard Gray’, also called ‘England’, is a British introduction, and ‘Andreas’ comes from New Zealand, but the U.S. West Coast also has produced some fine cultivars, including ‘Silver Frost’, ‘Ana Luisa’, ‘Lisa Marie’ and ‘Jennifer’. All make perfect mounds about as high as they are wide, with ‘Richard Gray’ being the smallest. The foliage of ‘Lisa Marie’ is greener than the others. ‘Ana Luisa’ is the largest cultivar and has the longest flower stems and the darkest purple flowers.

Mixed-Up Nomenclature

With so many new lavenders appearing, knowing the correct names of cultivars is a challenge. For example, I recently learned that a favorite white-flowered lavandin, L. ‘Caty Blanc’ (also called ‘Cathy Blanc’), which has long extended flower heads, is actually an older European cultivar called L. ‘Edelweiss’.

Keeping current with lavenders is difficult, at best. Reading books such as Virginia McNaughton’s Lavender: The Grower’s Guide (Timber Press, 2000) and The Genus Lavandula by Susyn Andrews and Tim Upson (Timber Press, 2004) will help decipher the true identities of lavenders. (Both books are available on The Herb Companion Bookshelf.) Unfortunately, the authors present mouthwatering new cultivars from the United Kingdom that are not available to our market until they cross the pond.

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Andrew Van Hevelingen is a professional herb grower and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. He enjoys writing, photography and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.