The herb of the year: Lavender
Lavender is probably the herb most admired for fragrance. Some people grow it for potpourri and dried or fresh bouquets. Some cook with lavender. A friend of mine finds the scent of lavender essential oil so soothing that he places a drop on his moustache every day to help relieve job stress.
My first introduction to lavender came thirty years ago when I watched my herb friend and mentor, Emma Wakefield, weave a lavender wand. First she tied together a small handful of long fresh lavender stems, then attached a satin ribbon, turned the bundle upside down, and spread the stems into an umbrella shape. Weaving the ribbon through the lavender stems, she enclosed the flowers in a gentle oval. She ended with a barbershop spiral of ribbon and finished it off with a bow. Voilà! A lavender wand to keep moths from the linen closet or freshen the air in my car!
I tried to follow Emma’s example, but an hour later, my fifty flower stalks had come to resemble a tiny baseball bat and my fingers hurt. Emma lent me a book on this and other lavender crafts so that I could practice at home. I soon realized that only the long-stemmed lavenders such as L. ¥intermedia would work. Today, there are many cultivars of this variety to choose from.
For refined floral fragrance, English lavender (L. angustifolia) excels. Perfumers prize its oil and aromatherapists use it for its healing qualities. This is the species that old herb books identify as L. vera, L. officinalis, or “true” lavender.
Spanish lavender (L. stoechas var. stoechas), also known as common sticadore, stickadove, or nardo, may have been the first lavender species to be used therapeutically. As early as a.d. 60, it scented England’s Roman baths with its strong camphoraceous smell reminiscent of rosemary. Its oil is seldom used in commerce today.
When French lavender growers crossed English lavender with the longer-stemmed spike lavender (L. latifolia), the resulting sterile hybrids (L. ¥intermedia) were larger than both parents and produced more oil at a lower cost. Known as lavandins, they now dominate the world’s lavender oil industry. During 1998, the lavandin cultivar ‘Grosso’ accounted for more than 70 percent of France’s lavender oil market. Unfortunately, lavandin oil has a much sharper scent than the oil of its English lavender parent; most of it ends up in cosmetic products and various washing agents.
For fresh cut flowers, L. angustifolia and its cultivars give off a refreshing, sweet floral fragrance that will enhance any room. They also offer a wider range of flower color than other lavender species do. I grow white-flowered ‘Nana Alba’; pink ‘Rosea’, ‘Melissa’, and ‘Hidcote Pink’; the familiar blue ‘Munstead’; and the darker purple ‘Hidcote’, ‘Loddon Blue’, and ‘Nana Atropurpurea’. The lavandins, except for the white L. ¥intermedia ‘Alba’, are blue, but they have longer flower stalks and longer flower heads—essential for successful lavender wands.
For dried floral bouquets, I turn to blue-flowered English lavenders ‘Gray Lady’, ‘Martha Roderick’, ‘Pastor’s Pride’, and ‘Sarah’, all of which keep their shape and color through drying. Dark-flowered cultivars such as the excellent long-stalked ‘Royal Velvet’, hold their color and stay intact if harvested when only one or two florets in the spike are beginning to open.
Growth habit, hardiness, and flower form are other factors to consider in choosing lavenders. For instance, among the English lavenders, ‘Baby Blue’ has a denser, more compact growth habit than the commonly available ‘Hidcote’. ‘Mitcham Grey’ has proven reliably hardy here, while ‘Sharon Roberts’ and ‘Buena Vista’ have elongated flower heads with clearly separated whorls.
Among the long-stemmed lavandins, my favorite is ‘Grosso’, whose narrow, tapered flower head results in a uniform lavender wand with a strong fragrance. The flowers dry to a muted lavender-gray compared to the blue or blue-gray of other lavandins. I also like ‘Super’, whose oil most resembles that of the angustifolias.
Unlike most other lavandins, ‘Hidcote Giant’ has a distintive short, stocky flower head that I find appealing in dried arrangements. ‘Provence’ also has a stocky flower head along with a much sweeter fragrance than other lavandins, which may account for its oil not being used commercially. Because ‘Provence’ on the stalk doesn’t dry well, I use it for fresh bouquets, lavender wands, and potpourri.
I have experimented recently with drying some unusual varieties of lavender. The 6-inch-long heads of L. ¥allardii dry to a blue-gray. ‘Silver Frost’ and ‘Ana Luisa’, hybrids between English lavender and woolly lavender (L. lanata), sport woolly flower stalks and pyramidal flower heads with dark purple florets that dry to a muted but intriguing purple-gray.
Growth habit, hardiness, and flower form are other factors to consider in choosing lavender.
The Spanish lavenders are showstoppers in the garden. The flower heads resemble small pinecones with big, colorful “rabbit ears” protruding from the top. The individual florets are dark and pretty but are upstaged by the showy bracts.
By chance, I noticed that if I planted the long-stemmed variety L. stoechas var. pedunculata at either end of my borders, the low-angled sunlight backlit them, seeming to set the bracts on fire. Cultivars include ‘Marshwood’, ‘Willow Vale’ (my favorite), and ‘Papillon’ (French for “butterfly”). ‘Atlas’ sports the largest flower head of the group.
As a hedge or border planting, lavender provides an ever-gray backdrop that is drought tolerant once established, requires little maintenance, and remains virtually pest-free. Plants usually reach their mature height in three years. English lavenders grow about 24 inches tall; some of the lavandins easily reach 30 inches. In bloom, they’re even taller.
A hedge of seed-grown ‘Munstead’ or ‘Hidcote’ lavender may not be uniform, the individual plants varying slightly in growth habit, time of bloom, or flower color. These varieties may also reseed. I therefore prefer to use plants that have been propagated vegetatively. Nonetheless, if uniformity isn’t a consideration, they provide a great number of plants at little cost.
Because the sterile lavandins must be propagated vegetatively, a hedge of a single cultivar will be uniform and of course won’t self-seed. I’ve found, however, that the white-flowered ‘Alba’ (syn. ‘White Hedge’) is susceptible to winter damage, fungal infection, and root rot, and may die after a couple of years in the ground. Choose a well-drained, protected site to keep this beautiful plant growing.
Lavenders may be combined with roses, especially in potpourri blends in which each fragrance supports the other. The same combination is also a winner in the garden. Choose compact varieties with blue flowers that don’t compete with the colors of the roses. Good candidates are ‘Martha Roderick’ and the newcomer ‘Blue Cushion’.
Like ornamental grasses, a single lavender plant looks like a lone soldier, out of place. When planted together, however, a grouping of several grasses—or lavenders—takes on a life of its own.
A garden of mixed lavenders rewards the gardener with nuances in texture, shade, and value of both foliage and flower color, and different habits of growth. According to the Royal Horticulture Society’s color chart (an international standard for identifying flower color), lavender colors extend from subtle blue-gray hues to deeper red-purples—with all the blues and purples in between.
I recommend planting lavandins among the English lavenders; they always look better in the winter, and their larger leaves provide superior silver foliage color—especially in the Dutch Group: ‘Dutch’, ‘Silver’, and ‘Dutch Mill’. For a different texture altogether, look to the woolly foliaged ‘Silver Frost’, ‘Ana Luisa’, ‘Sawyers’, and ‘Richard Grey’.
Instead of planting all the pink-flowering lavenders together, it’s a good idea to consider their other characteristics. For a planting that looks good all winter, for example, I’d choose ‘Melissa’ or ‘Hidcote Pink’ rather than ‘Rosea’ (syns. ‘Jean Davis’ or ‘Loddon Pink’), whose foliage blackens during the winter.
Lavenders in pots add interest to the patio or porch. They love the sun and heat and will probably survive if you should forget to water them once in a while. The tender lavenders do very well in pots and may well bloom throughout the season. Their highly aromatic foliage is another reason to keep them where you’re likely to brush up against them.
For superb silver—almost white—dissected and spoon-shaped leaves, try L. pinnata. Its blue-lavender flowers open in a spiral fashion as they proceed up the flower head. For contrast, L. minutolii offers vibrant green, extremely dissected leaves that are fragrant when bruised and vivid blue flowers on long stalks. This North African native is so fast growing and upright that I must pinch back the tips frequently to bush it out. Winter the tender lavenders over in a sunny window or greenhouse.
I’m always ready to experiment with other lavenders. The tiny English lavender ‘Alpine Alba’ gets only 5 or 6 inches in height in as many years. Perfect for alpine gardens or troughs, it adapts well to life in a pot. I once planted L. viridis in a container because I wasn’t sure of its winterhardiness; it has extremely aromatic green foliage and whitish flowers with pale yellow bracts atop the flower head. When it rapidly outgrew its pot, I planted one outside. To my surprise, it survived the winter. A newcomer to American gardens, L. maroccana, has aromatic green foliage and larger, more intensely blue flowers than L. pinnata.
A good plant for the pot or outside is L. ¥dentata ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’; it has long flower heads and beautiful silver foliage. A larger plant but less hardy is sweet lavender (L. ¥heterophylla) with flower stalks of 6 inches or longer and deliciously scented heads.
By choosing the right plants, you can have lavenders in bloom from early spring through late fall, even longer if you keep a few tender kinds in pots in the house. Here in Oregon, the free-flowering Spanish lavenders may open their rosemary-lavender-scented flowers as early as March and with diligent deadheading will rebloom sporadically throughout the growing season.
As summer brings higher temperatures and longer days, the English lavenders begin to bloom. They typically set a flush of bloom for two or three weeks in mid- to late June, and burst out with a few flowers now and then during summer. Some have a second, lighter flush of flowers that can be quite showy. I was pleasantly surprised this past year with the amount of rebloom in September and October of the English lavenders ‘Nana Atropurpurea’, ‘Tucker’s Early Purple’, ‘Buena Vista’, and ‘W. K. Doyle’ (syn. ‘Dark Supreme’); and lavandins ‘Grosso’, ‘Super’, and ‘Seal’. This year, the lavenders bloomed outside till mid-December, and for the New Year, I enjoyed the exquisite electric-blue flowers of L. maroccana inside the greenhouse.
With so many lavenders to choose from, why limit yourself to the most common ones? They’re easy to grow and dry—the fun is in choosing the lavender that is just right for your purpose. And after you’ve chosen them, relax and pause to smell the flowers.
Andy Van Hevelingen grows lavenders and other exquisite plants on his farm in Oregon. He writes regularly for The Herb Companion, most frequently in the “Round Robin” column.
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