Experiencing Lavender: Reaping the Benefits of this Elite Herb

A new variety, Lady Lavender, promises fast flowering.

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Lady lavender is the 1994 flower winner of All-America Selections (AAS), a nonprofit group that selects new plants each year for awards based on their value to the home gardener. Lady joins an elite group of herbs that have won this designation in either the vegetable or flower category: Fernleaf dill in 1992, Purple Ruffles basil in 1987, and Dark Opal basil in 1962.

Lady was developed by the late Ted Torrey when he was head breeder at W. Atlee Burpee and Company. Because the lavender, new on the market this spring, is said to bloom con­sistently its first year from seed, Burpee expects that it will be sold and grown as an annual bedding plant as well as a perennial. For impatient gardeners who ordinarily would have to wait until the second year for their new lavender to bloom, “annualizing” the perennial English lavender could be a boon.

Lavender is generally propagated vegetatively (by tip cuttings or layering) because cultivars seldom breed true from seed. Some herb growers doubt that Lady plants will be any more uniform, but AAS test growers found Lady to be a good performer. The packet included here contains 80 to 100 Lady seeds. Plant some, pass on a few to friends, and let us know what you learn.

Ken Ludwig, a horticulturist and product manager at George C. Ball Corp., Burpee’s parent company, explained how Lady was developed. Torrey, who did a lot of work with herbs including developing Fernleaf dill for Burpee, started almost a decade ago with a field of Munstead lavender grown from seed. He first selected for the earliest bloomers and collected the seeds produced by those plants. These seeds were sown and the resulting plants culled (or rogued) to eliminate any with undesirable traits; the flowers of those that passed the test were then hand-pollinated.

Lavender’s flowers contain both stamens and a pistil. In hand pollination, a pollen-bearing anther from one stamen is touched to the stigma at the top of the pistil; in this case, called self-pollination, both parts were from the same plant. During the bloom period, the flowers had to be kept isolated as much as possible from insects that might cross-pollinate it with pollen from another plant.

Each succeeding generation of plants, after roguing, was self-pollinated to stabilize the early-blooming trait. (A generation is measured from the time a seed is sown and germinates until the plant reaches maturity and produces harvestable seed of its own.) One of the biggest challenges in developing new varieties, Ludwig says, is that the plants must produce viable seed—often a problem with lavenders—in sufficient quantity to warrant commercial production. Seed is far easier to produce and ship (and to insert between the pages of a magazine) than live plants grown from cuttings. Fertility, like early blooming, is a trait that can be selected for in a breeding program.

When the plants show low variation in the traits that breeders are trying to isolate, usually after about six generations, they are considered sufficiently genetically stable. The seed is then sent out to be grown in test fields throughout the country. If the results are acceptable, growers, packagers, and marketers take over, and it finds its way to the nation’s garden centers and nurseries.

Home gardeners can do their own plant breeding on a smaller scale, and many do. Burpee, in fact, has gotten some of its new varieties from home gardeners who sent the company seeds from their beefiest tomatoes or odd-colored flowers or most disease-resistant cukes. Of the dozens of named varieties of lavender, most were developed by professional growers, but some have come from home gardeners. There are countless ­others, unnamed and unknown, growing in herb gardens everywhere that might carry the genes of a new and special lavender.

One Grower’s Experience

I was skeptical because in many heartbreaking years of growing lavender from seed, cuttings and root divisions, I have never seen a bloom on a first-season plant, and none of those plants ever made it through the winter outside.

I love lavender for its beauty of form and penetrating perfume, but I’d just about given up trying to grow it when Lady entered my life.

I was asked to try growing Lavandula angustifolia ‘Lady’ from seed by the garden editor of a Canadian magazine. The relatively short growing season here in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia—frost-free from mid-June to mid-September—would severely test the claim that seed-grown Lady, unlike most other lavenders, would bloom in its first season.

I was skeptical because in many heartbreaking years of growing lavender from seed, cuttings and root divisions, I have never seen a bloom on a first-season plant, and none of those plants ever made it through the winter outside. Although I had no foreknowledge that last summer would be one of the coldest and shortest of the past 22 years, I had already decided that any plants I managed to raise would spend the summer in pots, to be moved indoors at the end of the growing season. The important question for me was, would Lady bloom as advertised? If so, I would consider wintering it outdoors next season in the hope that its maturity would help it withstand freezing temperatures.

On April 10, which is still wintry here, I sowed Lady seeds in my “intensive care unit” reserved for herbs that mature slowly: an old heating pad set up under a single fluorescent light in an unused, unheated bedroom. I forgot to prechill the seeds, a measure sometimes recommended for lavender, but I did take extra care with the sowing medium. Knowing that water-clogged roots are death to lavender, I used a prepared sterile mix rather than my usual sifted compost and fortified it with extra perlite and ver­miculite to improve drainage. I sowed the seeds in small plastic cups with drainage holes and set the containers on the heating pad (covered with plastic to protect it from getting wet), which provided steady bottom heat. I covered each cup with a small plastic bag to retain moisture.

I was astonished when I saw signs of life 48 hours later. On April 13, four seedlings, the vanguard of a virtual army of lavender, emerged from the soil. That was probably a germination record for any lavender and much faster than the 14 to 28 days claimed on the package. But as anyone who grows plants from seed knows, germination is only the first step in a plant’s long and perilous journey to maturity.

The seedlings grew slowly, and true leaves did not appear until April 28. At this rate, I thought, the summer would be over by the time Lady got going, if she ever did. On May 4, I moved the still-small seedlings to our little lean-to greenhouse made from old windows to toughen them up for a couple of weeks before transplanting them to individual plastic pots. The weather at transplanting time was very cold and windy, the sun hidden behind the ever-­present gray blanket that covers the island all spring. And so my little army of transplanted lavenders began to keel over and die, afflicted with fungus. I told you so, I thought. This experiment is doomed.

We transplanted two surviving seedlings into nice terra-cotta pots filled with fast-draining potting soil fortified with extra vermiculite and perlite, and fertilized them every two weeks with a dilute solution of soluble fertilizer (I use RX 15). The pots remained in the greenhouse and benefited from the extra heat produced there on the occasional sunny day. Growth was very slow until early July when—surely a miracle—I noticed that, like the proverbial ugly duckling, my tiny seedlings had transformed themselves into two fine lavender specimens. By late July, they were a foot tall, their stems sprawling over the sides of the pot. Somehow, despite the setbacks, these plants had more than attained their maximum height of 10 inches I had been led to expect. I was impressed. But would they bloom?

By August 3, I moved one of the plants outdoors to a sunny spot by the front door where I could keep an eye on its progress. On August 6, I noticed lavender color just showing from the tips of leaf clusters; by August 19, the first tiny lavender flowers opened, a remarkable performance that kept me entertained daily. Subsequent flowering spikes were no­where near the advertised 6 inches, but that’s probably because the plant had been restrained by pot culture. I’m willing to give Lady the benefit of the doubt, considering her astonishing growth rate. By early October, having already survived several hard frosts, Lady had achieved a truly matronly appearance, very handsome in her pot sitting among the rocks of a protected corner garden.

In my opinion, Lady lived up to claims. The ultimate test—putting it in the ground—is reserved for next season. I’ll plant one of my prized plants outdoors, while the other, my insurance, will remain in the pot, to be moved inside or out depending on the weather. For those who live in more favorable climates, this strategy is probably unnecessary.

Only a gardener who has failed many times with this wonderful herb (and I suspect there are a lot of us) can appreciate the thrill of successfully growing a lavender from seed to maturity in one season. Lady is a winner in every respect.