Herbal Spotlight: Lavender

With so many variations of lavender, this guide will help you keep these purple beauties straight.

| June/July 2004

The world’s longstanding love affair with lavender has been fueled recently by an explosion of new varieties from breeders around the world. The lavender most of us first met was English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), but now we can choose among improved English varieties, other lavender species and crosses that offer fragrance, beauty, tidy growing habits and great appeal as landscape plants. 

Variations on L. angustifolia

Cultivated varieties of English lavender continue to multiply, particularly those with dark purple and pink flowers, as well as compact growers. The most popular of the traditional English lavenders was L. a. ‘Hidcote’, which had the darkest purple flowers. Now that dark purple can be found in several cultivars. L. a. ‘Imperial Gem’ (also called ‘Nana 1’) — although not particularly new — is very similar in appearance to ‘Hidcote’ but with an improved growth habit. It forms a better-shaped bush with dense silver foliage, especially attractive in the winter landscape. The rich, dark purple flowers of ‘Imperial Gem’ top stems that seem to be more robust.

A soon-to-be-available new cultivar, ‘Purple Bouquet’, boasts dark purple flower heads that are larger than ‘Hidcote’ and on longer stems tinged with purple when young. This will add interest to fresh and dried bouquets. If you prefer a smaller cultivar with dark purple flowers, the new  ‘Lavenite Petite’ is a good choice. It grows only to about 15 inches and has shorter stems but a longer flower head with bright violet-blue flowers. Its slightly darker flower buds are ideal for drying.

The traditional soft pink-flowered L. a. ‘Rosea’ (also called ‘Nana Rosea’ or ‘Pink’), had few peers when first introduced prior to 1937. Then along came another pink-flowered cultivar, L. a. ‘Jean Davis’, which even today is hard to distinguish from its predecessor. Now pink-flowered English lavenders afford many choices, including ‘Hidcote Pink’, ‘Little Lottie’, ‘Melissa’, ‘Miss Katherine’ and ‘Coconut Ice’. For hedges, ‘Hidcote Pink’ (pre-1958) is a great choice because the plants are bushy or spherical. Initially opening to very pink flowers, it is stunning in bloom and even afterward, with attractive gray-green foliage.

‘Little Lottie’ is the smallest of the pink-flowered cultivars and forms a tight little mound with fine-textured flower stems. Its daintiness lends itself to container growing or the small garden. It is a good choice for underplanting with roses as a complement or contrast to their color. Also, it looks good throughout the winter months, unlike some whose foliage tends to discolor with winter wetness.

‘Melissa’ has an upright habit similar to  ‘Jean Davis’, with good spikes of pink and white flowers. It is a popular choice for culinary use, thanks to its good floral flavor.  ‘Miss Katherine’ is considered the darkest pink-flowered lavender of all, with an interesting star-shaped marking when the flowers first open. ‘Coconut Ice’ has compact growth and flower buds that initially appear a ghostly white until they open and age to a darker pink. Although all may be used in small hedges, some are better as solitary specimens — especially contrasted with the darker blue-violets and purples of other lavenders or to echo pink or white colors elsewhere in the garden.

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