The Best Varieties Around
Photograph by Mark Turner
Lavender is ageless and regal like a grandmother, fresh and lively like a teenager. Modest and demure like a Victorian lady’s lacy sachet, yet as sumptuous as an ancient Roman’s scented bath. We may view lavender as a gentle flower, but it went to world wars as an antiseptic and has long been a heavyweight in the fragrance industry. Indeed, this plant of antiquity is as popular now as it ever was, still the stuff of poetry and love affairs but also a sturdy addition to the landscape.
The many-splendored lavender is, of course, not one plant but many. There are about thirty species of Lavandula and many hybrids and varieties, some occurring naturally, some the work of plant breeders. They include both tender and hardy perennials in a diversity of fragrances, leaf and flower colors, shapes, heights, and landscape uses. That’s one reason why lavenders are so seductive: there’s always another new one to get acquainted with.
Are you just starting with lavender and wondering which one to try? Do you grow lavender and want to add more to the garden? Do you grow it as a source of material for crafts or cooking or for the wash of soft but vibrant color it adds to the landscape? Are you looking for a reliable lavender for a difficult climate?
Here we’ve pulled together a selection of some of the best lavenders around. These are favorites of people who know and grow a wide variety, including a botanist and fragrance researcher, an herb crafter, edible-flower chefs, growers, and terrific herb gardeners from the far north to the deep south.
If this were a lavender popularity contest, the winner would clearly be ‘Grosso,’ a hybrid lavandin that has earned wide acclaim for its beauty, vigor, and elegant, clean scent and flavor.
Theresa Loe, an El Segundo, California, gardener and crafter, harvests lavenders for the penetrating fragrance of their flowers. For making potpourris and wreaths, Loe wants lavenders that hold fragrance and color well on drying, grow well in her Zone 10 garden, and yield abundantly.
She chose three favorites. Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ is a popular traditional English lavender with flowers of deep bluish purple. L. angustifolia ‘Munstead’ is slightly more compact than ‘Hidcote’ and has bluer flower spikes. “I like to cut these stems and dry them whole. It’s a good, clean fragrance,” Loe says.
And finally, L. ¥intermedia ‘Grosso.’ “This has the strongest fragrance of the three, and it holds up well. It would probably be my favorite if my dog hadn’t dug it up.”
Arthur O. Tucker, a professor of botany at Delaware State University in Dover, is an avid gardener with an interest in scent, perfume, and herbal essential-oil analysis. He describes his garden as “coastal plain, Zone 7 soil infested with nematodes and sudden-wilt fungi during our hot, humid summers.”
“If I could have but one lavender, it would be ‘Grosso’ lavandin,” Tucker says. “Not only is this cultivar a choice for commercial production because of the sweetness of its essential oil, but the abundant fat spikes make it a great landscape plant.”
And if he could choose a few more, they would be L. angustifolia ‘Royal Velvet,’ whose dark purple wands retain their color well on drying; L. ¥intermedia ‘Edelweiss,’ a heavy-blooming, white-flowered lavandin; and L. angustifolia ‘Rosea’ (also sold as ‘Jean Davis’ and ‘Loddon Pink’). Of ‘Rosea,’ Tucker says, “I’d plant it along the paths where its delicate pink sweet blossoms could be rubbed while walking through the garden on early, hot summer evenings.”
Herb gardeners farther north face a challenge in their quest for luxuriant lavender. At least a third of the species of Lavandula will survive winter’s blasts only in pots indoors, and even the hardiest lavenders—the English lavenders and the lavandins—are reliable only to Zone 5, where temperatures may dip as low as –20°F.
Pat Herkal gardens in Riverton, Wyoming (Zone 3), where winters are dry and windy and temperatures may plunge to –40°F. She admits to having killed many lavenders. “I have one six- or seven-year-old L. angustifolia that comes up gamely each year, but it is spindly, puts on little growth, and does not have enough flower spikes to make one good sachet. I can’t pull it out because it remains so faithful.”
Herkal’s only real success has been the fast-growing L. angustifolia ‘Lady’, which she can start indoors from seed in March and have prolific flowers through the summer. “The plants live only two or three years, but they are easy to propagate from seed, so I replant every other year.” Herkal grows ‘Lady’ in a protected spot in company with soft pink roses and hot pink dianthuses.
Conrad Richter of Richters herb nursery grows lavenders in Goodwood, Ontario, Canada (Zone 5), where nearby Lake Ontario moderates the severity of the winter. “Over the last few years, we’ve been surprised to learn that the lavandins have turned out to be even hardier than the English lavenders,” he says.
Of the seventeen lavenders listed in the Richters catalog, the hardiest are ‘Provence’—“It’s a very robust lavandin, great as a potted plant, and hardy in the garden,” he says—and ‘Grosso,’ which also does well there. Richter has had no customer complaints about either’s winter-killing. ‘Lady’ is less reliable, but because it matures fast enough to bloom its first year from seed, it can be grown as an annual.
For advice on lavenders for the hot and humid South, we turned to Madalene Hill, who lives in Round Top in central Texas (Zone 8). English lavenders and lavandins, like many other gray-leaved or woolly plants, generally grow poorly in moist, hot climates, but Hill has trialed more than fifty lavender varieties and learned a few tricks to increase their survival (such as mulching plants with a heavy layer of pea gravel, crushed granite, or sand to cut down on the incidence of fungal diseases). She has large, even vigorous specimens of lavandin (‘Grosso,’ ‘Dutch,’ and ‘Provence’) that are now more than ten years old, but they’ve never bloomed, probably because they need a period of winter dormancy that Texas can’t provide.
Two lavender species, however, always grow vigorously and bloom heavily in Hill’s garden. Spanish lavender (L. stoechas), with elongated purple bracts like butterfly wings at the tip of the flower stalks, grows in large clumps up to 4 feet tall. L. heterophylla has “beautiful green foliage,” she says. “It blooms all summer, we cut it back in August, and it reblooms lightly in the fall.” In addition to the species, Hill grows the cultivars ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ and ‘Formaspike’; all form big clumps 18 to 20 inches high and 2 1/2 feet across.
“I love lavender,” says Andy Van Hevelingen, who grows more than ninety lavender varieties in his nursery in Newberg, Oregon, and is always searching for new ones. Here are ten of his favorites:
• Lavandula ‘Silver Frost’, also known as ‘Kathleen Elizabeth’ lavender, originated as an unusual seeding that Van Hevelingen found and introduced to the trade. A natural cross between L. angustifolia and L. lanata, it has white woolly leaves and in late June is covered with flower spikes on 15-inch stems. The fragrant dark violet flowers are clothed in light woolly calyxes. “For year-round beauty, it is the best lavender for landscaping,” Van Hevelingen says.
• L. ¥allardii (a hybrid of L. dentata and L. latifolia) is a vigorous, fast-growing, freely blooming lavender that is grown more in Australia than in the United States. It is tall—up to 5 feet in a warm climate—and has silver notched leaves that resemble those of L. heterophylla. Van Hevelingen likes to use this tender perennial as a specimen plant in a container.
• L. minutolii is native to the Canary Islands and North Africa. Its evergreen, dissected leaves have a camphorlike scent. “If it’s not in bloom, it’s not immediately recognizable as a lavender plant,” Van Hevelingen says. “I like to challenge my gardening friends to guess its identity.” The flower spikes of this tender lavender are long and have deep purple florets that begin in a whorl at the bottom of the spike and spiral upward. It grows well in a container.
• L. angustifolia ‘Betty’s Blue’ is a little taller and broader than most other English lavenders and is very hardy. Its dark purple flowers rival ’Hidcote’ for intensity of color and scent. It has a good rebloom in early fall, and the flowers dry well.
• L. angustifolia ‘Buena Vista’ is a good landscape lavender with an excellent fragrance. It has deep purple flowers and blooms in the fall.
• ‘Lisa Marie’, a hybrid of L. angustifolia ‘Martha Roderick’ and L. lanata, is a compact plant with attractive silvery foliage. The frosted gray flower heads open to blue violet on 6- to 8-inch spikes.
• L. angustifolia ‘Royal Velvet’, which is also one of Art Tucker’s favorites, was introduced by Van Hevelingen from seed collected on a trip to England. Its intensely purple flowers on 12- to 14-inch stalks make it “the most requested lavender variety that we grow for dried floral use,” Van Hevelingen says.
• ‘Tucker’s Early Purple’ is a long-blooming hybrid with dark blue flowers. “It is one of the earliest lavenders to bloom and the last to finish. It just never quits for us,” says Van Hevelingen. It is his wife’s favorite lavender.
• L. ¥intermedia ‘Super’ is a lavandin widely grown commercially in France for its oil. It is very fragrant, dries well, and has 16- to 20-inch stems, which make it especially nice for lavender wands.
• L. stoechas ‘Willowvale’, only recently available in the United States, is a Spanish lavender with large purple bracts. It is one of the earliest lavenders to bloom in late spring, when it attracts butterflies, and will continue throughout the summer if deadheaded, according to Van Hevlingen. In the garden, the bracts seem to glow when backlit by the sun.
For Seattle chef Eric Leonard, the clean, deep, yet delicate aroma and flavor of ‘Grosso’ make it his favorite culinary lavender. Leonard is compiling recipes from some of the nation’s top chefs for a lavender cookbook to be published this summer by Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, California.
Chefs use lavender in Asian cuisines and in blends with dill, basil, mint, garlic, savory, marjoram, and/or thyme in marinades for fish, game, and red meat. It is an ingredient of the classic blend herbes de Provence and adds an unforgettable perfume and fresh flavor to pastries or whipped cream.
The secret to cooking with lavender, Leonard says, is to use a light touch: start with a little bit and don’t steep or marinate too long.
Herb cookbook author Susan Belsinger agrees that lavender should be used sparingly. When her husband was put off by a lavender cream dish that she was developing, she halved the amount of lavender, but he wouldn’t even try it again. On the other hand, a photographer who sampled the revised recipe called it “one of the most sensual desserts he’d ever had,” Belsinger says.
Belsinger has no special lavender that she prefers for cooking; she grows many kinds and uses whatever is in bloom.
All the lavenders mentioned in this article are available at one or more of the following mail-order nurseries, which offer wide selections.
Canyon Creek Nursery, 3527 Dry Creek Rd., Oroville, CA 95965. (530) 533-2166. Catalog $2.
Companion Plants, 7247 N. Coolville Ridge Rd., Athens, OH 45701. (740) 592-4643. Catalog $3.
Dutch Mill Herb Farm, 6640 Northwest Marsh Rd., Forest Grove, OR 97116. (503) 357-0924. Send SASE for price list.
Goodwin Creek, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. (541) 846-7357. Catalog $1.
Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. (860) 774-8038. Catalog $3.
Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Rd., NE, Albany, OR 97321. (541) 928-9280. Catalog free.
Rasland Farm, Rt. 1, Box 65C, NC 82 at US 13, Godwin, NC 28344-9712. (910) 567-2705. Catalog $3.
Sandy Mush Herb Nursery, 316 Surrett Cove Rd., Leicester, NC 28748-5517. Catalog $4.
Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 205 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. (908) 852-5390. Catalog $2.
Woodside Gardens, 1191 Egg and I Rd., Chimacun, WA 98325. (360) 732-4754. Catalog $2.
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