Amere drift of lavender’s provocative fragrance–pungently floral with fresh pine, woods, hay, and citrus–hints at romance. Lavender has an unwavering link to antiquity, a deep relationship to humans, and a universal appeal.
In the little town of Sequim, Washington, you’ll get more than a whiff. In fact, the air is fragrant for miles around because this area is home to more than twenty-five lavender farms. Lavender thrives there quite naturally, thanks to a quirk of geography. This tiny, sea-level enclave extending from the Strait of Juan de Fuca inland about twenty miles along the Dungeness Valley, rests in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains. This microclimate is similar to that of lavender’s native Mediterranean. The heat and drought–only about 10 inches of rain falls all year–coupled with a very long growing season, makes this verdant valley ideal for growing lavender.
“Awareness of and demand for lavender is at an all-time high here in the United States,” says Mike Reichner, who with his wife Jadyne owns Purple Haze Lavender Ltd. and is a member of the Sequim-Dungeness Lavender Growers’ Association. Lavender’s popularity is riding a purple wave across North America.
The Reichners are riding that wave, too. “We’ve gone from nineteen plants in 1996 to 18,000 plants and fifty varieties on seven-and-a-half acres,” he says. Their company sells 1 ton of lavender florets a year, and revenue from all their lavender products is up 400 percent over last year.
For three days in July during the Celebrate Lavender Festival, the town of Sequim’s population triples as visitors seek out plants, products, and the luscious lavender experience.
The bloom, fragrance, foliage, form, and color of lavenders are assets to any garden.
Lavandula is a genus of about thirty species, each with its own roster of varieties. It shares a family with many other square-stemmed herbs such as mint, sage, horehound, thyme, and marjoram. Lavender plants prefer well-drained to dry soil, neutral to slightly alkaline (pH of 6.5 to 8.2), in an open location that receives six to eight hours of sunlight a day. In its native Provence, France, lavender is found growing right out of the limestone rock. This fact led Mike Reichner to try mulching his lavender plants with oyster shells. “Oyster shells act as a weed barrier, calcify the soil, conserve water, and reflect heat and light,” he says. “And they are absolutely stunning with the purple and greens of the plants.”
For people who can’t get oyster shells, Arthur Tucker, one of North America’s foremost lavender authorities, advises: “any light-colored, well-drained mulch, such as sand, will do, but marble chips or oyster shells also add lime.”
Pruning encourages bushy growth. Depending on the location, two or more harvests per season are common. Lavender thrives in direct sunlight, well-drained soil, and low humidity (too much rain and humidity can cause root-rot and mildew or fungus on foliage). Propagate from cuttings of strong new growth in summer or fall, and once rooted, plant them out after threat of frost has past.
Pruning encourages bushy growth and depending on the location, two or more harvests per season are common.
Dry lavender by hanging the stems (flowers and leaves attached) in a dark, warm, dry room with good air circulation. Once dry, strip the leaves and flowers from the stems and store them in a dark glass jar in a cool, dark, dry location.
Lavender plants can survive ten to twelve years before going woody and dying from the center outward. Toni Anderson, however, has a fine example of a granddaddy twenty-five-year-old lavender plant still thriving at Cedarbrook Herb Farm, where her mother planted it. Cedarbrook, another member of the Sequim-Dungeness Lavender Growers’ Association, is Washington State’s oldest herb farm (started in 1967).
Popular plants at a glance
From bloom and fragrance to foliage, form, and color, lavenders provide stunning features for an entire range of formal to friendly gardens. Here are four of the most popular lavender species.
English lavender (L. angustifolia)
Angustifolia means “narrow leaved,” and these lavenders are sweetly scented, considered the finest sources for essential oil, and are the most resistant to cold. Hardy to Zone 5 and able to withstand -20°F, L. angustifolia is the species found most often in North American gardens. Many varieties form small, dense shrubs with grayish foliage and are ideal for low hedges. Because of their sweet smell and taste, English lavenders are recommended for culinary use in iced and baked desserts, oils, sauces, and dressings. Some good cultivars include ‘Mitchem Grey’, ‘Loddon Blue’, and ‘Munstead’ which grows to one and a half feet, with deep lavender blue flowers.
French lavender (L. dentata)
The Latin word dentate, from which flows the English word “dentures,” means toothed. The tender French lavender’s leaves have a delicate lacy edging and a slightly gray, mossy texture.
(The plant that North Americans call French lavender should not be confused with the lavender cultivated in France mainly for its oil–the lavandins.)
The pungent, medicinal aroma of French lavender’s flower bracts and leaves keeps it out of the kitchen except for the most robust of dishes, but makes it perfect for soaps and other essential oil applications. French lavender is hardy to Zone 9.
L. dentata var. candicans is a small, perfect example of French lavender. It lends itself very nicely to container growing due to its size and drought resistance.
Spanish lavender (L. stoechas)
Known and used throughout history, the Spanish lavenders are popular ornamentals with unusual barrel-shaped flowers topped by long, feathery wisps. Lavenders in this species normally grow 12 to 18 inches tall and are hardy to Zone 7b. Their strong, camphor-like scent intensifies on drying. Widely distilled and used for medicine in the Middle Ages, L. stoechas lavenders are now used mainly for dried arrangements and other crafts.
L. stoechas subsp. pedunculata ‘Otto’s Quest’ has a topnotch of bracts that grow up to 3/4 inch in length and sit atop a fat, stubby flower head. This decorative Spanish lavender offers a showy profile much like that of a pineapple. Even the orange-gold dots of pollen arranged in neat rows add to the pineapple appearance.
Spike lavender (L. latifolia)
Indigenous to the southern regions of France, Portugal, Spain, and the Alps, the stems of spike lavender differ from most lavenders in that they branch to form arms resembling candelabras. This feature makes them useful as a vertical accent plant in the garden. Spike lavender has broad leaves and three-stemmed flower spikes. It is hardy to Zone 7 and reaches up to 2 feet.
Although all lavenders belong to the genus Lavandula, some have been grouped into a category known as lavandin (pronounced lah-van-deen). These plants are all hybrids of L. angustifolia and are used almost exclusively in the modern-day French lavender-oil industry because of their high-quality oil. Like other lavender hybrids and subspecies, lavandins are propagated by cuttings.
Lavandula ¥intermedia ‘Grosso’ is a very popular lavandin in both France and the United States. ‘Grosso’ has the distinctive gray tinged foliage and deep violet to purple blooms. Robust, tall, and easily harvested, ‘Grosso’ was discovered in the early 1970s. The oil of this fragrant lavandin is used primarily for soaps and perfumes, and the sprigs are excellent for drying and may be used for culinary purposes.
Cedarbrook Herb Farm, 1345 Sequim Ave., Sequim WA 98383; (360) 683-7733; email@example.com.
Jardin du Soleil, 3932 Sequim Dungeness Way, Sequim, WA 98382; (877) 527-3461; www.jardindusoleil.com.
Mantanzas Creek Winery, 6097 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa, CA 95404; (800) 590-6464; www.mantanzascreek.com
Purple Haze Lavender Ltd., 180 Bell Bottom Rd., Sequim, WA 98382; (888) 852-6560; www.purplehazelavender.com.