Lavandula angustifolia ‘Melissa’ is a pink and delicate lavender known for its sweet fragrance.
Photo by Janet Loughrey
On a warm, sunny day, it doesn’t get much better than brushing up against a lavender plant and inhaling the intoxicating aroma. You can experience this just about anywhere in your landscape. From pathways to rock gardens, lavender makes a wonderful focal point, and it is useful as well. Any warm, sunny spot will do, as long as the soil allows for proper drainage and the plant gets plenty of room to grow.
There are more than 450 named lavender varieties or cultivars, and more are being discovered all the time. Lavender belongs to the Lamiaceae (mint) family, which includes oregano, sage and other fragrant herbs. There are several species within the genus Lavandula, grouping plants together based on characteristics such as hardiness, leaf shape and fragrance. Some species are available only in certain parts of the world, and only about four species can be grown outside of tropical climates.
3 Fragrant and Delicious Lavender Recipes
• Lavender Shortbread Cookies with Lemon Buttercream Frosting
• Lavender Jam
• Lavender Lemonade
What makes the lavender plant a great addition to the landscape?
Lavender is a beautiful addition to just about any garden. Lavender foliage colors range from various shades of green through gray-green to silver; variegated cultivars are even available. The flowers are not just lavender but come in a spectrum of colors, from blues and purples to whites and pinks. These plants also come in a variety of sizes: there are dwarf lavenders, medium-sized lavenders and lavenders that grow quite large to fit into any landscape design. More and more people are realizing how easy lavender is to grow and how useful it can be in the garden.
Once lavender is established, it doesn’t need to be watered very often. Plants are considered drought-tolerant if they can survive a dry period with little or no supplemental watering. With lavender’s sunny disposition, it certainly falls into this category. In fact, when lavender is placed in the right spot—where it has full sun, good drainage and plenty of room to grow—it will thrive with very little care, even through the summer months. With many municipalities restricting water use, these plants can hold their own and help conserve water.
Lavender attracts a wide range of pollinators that are not only beneficial to your garden but also are great for the environment. A lavender plant draws the bugs you want in your garden that, in turn, eat the ones you don’t. On a hot, sunny day, anyone can become mesmerized by watching the level of activity on one lavender plant. Bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, ladybugs and praying mantises are only some of the beneficial insects a lavender plant will attract. These pollinator, predator and parasitic species not only help the plants and flowers thrive, they also greatly reduce the need for pesticides throughout your garden. (For more information about beneficial bugs, read Attract Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden.)
If you have had deer wander in your yard, you know that they like to nibble on just about anything. The only way to really keep a deer out of your garden permanently is a tall fence, but lavender is considered a deer-resistant plant, meaning they do not prefer the taste of lavender. If hungry enough, they may nibble the tops of young plants a bit, but they normally stay clear of established plants. Rabbits don’t like lavender, either.
Lavender plants are built-in aromatherapy. Not only do they add a wonderful fragrance to your garden, but the lavender flowers can also be brought indoors for herbal teas, homemade crafts and sachets for your drawers. It’s hard to think of another plant that can add this much beauty and joy to our lives.
How to Plant Lavender and Which Lavender Varieties to Plant
Lavenders come in a wide range of sizes, habits and bloom colors. The best lavender for you to plant will depend upon both the growing conditions you can offer and the effect you want to achieve in your garden.
Lavender has been grown for centuries in many parts of the world. In North America, however, the lavender industry is still in its infancy. The topography of the United States and Canada is expansive and diverse. To date, very little research has been done to determine which cultivars of lavender can grow well in which particular locations. Growing lavender can be “iffy” in certain regions of North America where temperatures regularly plunge well below freezing in the winter. And areas with higher humidity during summer months may be limited to growing lavender species that can withstand these conditions.
If you live in an area that has four seasons, you will have the most success with hardy lavenders, such as Lavandula angustifolia and L. ×intermedia. Most true lavenders or L. angustifolia varieties have the same hardiness rating, so if you have success growing L. angustifolia ‘Betty’s Blue’, chances are you will have the same success growing L. angustifolia ‘Royal Velvet’. Lavendula stoechas can withstand colder temperatures for short periods of time but are not considered hardy.
The Range of Lavender Fragrance
Plant fragrance among lavenders is as varied as wine. Each has its own phytochemistry, which produces a unique combination of aromatics, which collectively generate complex scents. In general, L. angustifolia varieties tend to have a more distinctive floral note. As a result, oil from this species is found in higher-end cosmetics and perfumes. L. ×intermedia varieties contain more camphor—a sharper, woodier fragrance—and their oil is used in detergents at a higher volume. Lavendula stoechas has a high ketone content, making it particularly pungent. Other factors that affect fragrance include soil, age of the plant, when the lavender is harvested and even rainfall levels. Which type of lavender fragrance smells best is a matter of personal opinion. Rub the leaves and flowers of different species and varieties in your fingers and discover your own favorites.
Lavender Plant: Is It English or Is It French?
For the sake of simplicity, it is easy to get into the habit of nicknaming plant species to avoid long, hard-to-pronounce botanical names. Lavender has fallen victim to this process, and terms such as English, French, Spanish and even German are commonly used to identify particular groups of lavender. In the United States, we hear Lavendula stoechas referred to as Spanish lavender, while in the United Kingdom, it’s commonly called French lavender. Here in the States, the common name French lavender is generally used for the species that you would imagine would grow in France, namely L. ×intermedia, but French lavender is actually the common name for L. dentata, a toothed lavender that is altogether different from L. ×intermedia. In Australia, English lavender can mean both L. angustifolia and L. ×intermedia, and Lavendula stoechas is called Italian lavender. In France, L. angustifolia is called la lavande, yet in other countries it is called English. L. ×intermedia ‘Dutch’ was misread as ‘Deutsch’ along the way and is sometimes referred to as German lavender. Confusing, isn’t it?
If you really want to shorten the names for classification, English lavenders or varieties of L. angustifolia can be called true or common lavender. Varieties of L. ×intermedia are referred to as lavandins. Lavendula stoechas is technically French lavender, as it came from the southern coast of France, but using this name can be confusing to someone who has a different idea of what French lavender is. It is probably best to refer to it as stoechas.
Lavender Plant: Past and Future
Lavender has been a staple in gardens around the globe for centuries. The earliest accounts on record indicate that lavender was used for a multitude of purposes. In medieval times, powdered lavender was used as a condiment and preservative to mask disagreeable flavors. Plants were introduced in England around A.D. 1265, and lavender plant cuttings were often used as floor bedding to keep pests away. France has used lavender as a cash crop for the lavender oil industry and produces more than 1,000 tons of lavender essence each year to perfume detergents and the like.
Commercial lavender production began in North America sometime around 1924 in Seattle. Since then, interest in lavender production has taken root, and some lavender farms have established themselves as tourist destinations. As more farmers are realizing the value of growing this wondrous herb, lavender farms in several regions across the United States have joined forces to offer collective tours for visitors to enjoy.
With an increasing number of people incorporating alternative methods of healing and wellness, lavender is making a stand thanks to its wide range of uses in cooking, crafting, aromatherapy and the like.
10 Great Lavender Plants
Lavandula angustifolia ‘Betty’s Blue’. The first wreath I ever made was with ‘Betty’s Blue’, and the lavender plant is still a top choice for wreaths I make today. The flower heads hold together well for drying, and the deep blue color is captivating.
L. angustifolia ‘Buena Vista’. A supersweet fragrance and rich purple flowers on a plant that blooms all summer—what more could you ask for? ‘Buena Vista’ is also a great lavender choice for culinary use.
L. angustifolia ‘Folgate’. This is my all-around favorite lavender. ‘Folgate’ can withstand colder temperatures and is one of the first to bloom in the season. The soft periwinkle blue flowers are my first choice for fresh cut, and the plant has a tight bloom habit that looks great all year long.
L. angustifolia ‘Melissa’. Pink lavenders are known for their sweet fragrance, and ‘Melissa’ is no exception. This cultivar is a top pick for use in your favorite lavender recipes.
L. angustifolia ‘Purple Bouquet’. If you want a deep, rich purple flower combined with long stems, this lavender is an excellent choice. ‘Purple Bouquet’ also blooms twice during the season.
L. angustifolia ‘Royal Purple’. This larger-than-life lavender makes a statement. Boasting hundreds of long-stemmed light purple flowers, it makes an excellent choice for a hedge or a focal point in the garden.
L. angustifolia ‘Royal Velvet’. As its name suggests, this lavender has a rich, velvety flower head, along with long stems for crafts. One of the top picks for all-around great lavender.
L. ×chaytorae ‘Ana Luisa’. All who see ‘Ana Luisa’ blooming have to have one for their collection. The combination of light silvery foliage and long, deep purple blossoms is stunning. ‘Ana Luisa’ can withstand higher humidity in the summer, making it a good choice for warm, humid climates.
L. ×intermedia ‘Gros Bleu’. ‘Gros Bleu’ combines the rich color of the angustifolias with the bloom habit and long stems of lavandin varieties. Because it has less camphor than other lavandins, it has a light, clean lavender scent.
L. ×intermedia ‘Grosso’. When customers ask which lavender has the strongest scent, this is the lavender plant I always recommend. ‘Grosso’ is also the preferred cultivar for lavender wands and sachets.
This article is excerpted from The Lavender Lover’s Handbook (Timber Press, 2012) by Sarah Berringer Bader. Sarah owns the Lavender At Stonegate Farm in West Linn, Oregon.