Experiencing Lavender: Reaping the Benefits of this Elite Herb

A new variety, Lady Lavender, promises fast flowering.

| February/March 1994

Lady lavender is the 1994 flower winner of All-America Selections (AAS), a nonprofit group that selects new plants each year for awards based on their value to the home gardener. Lady joins an elite group of herbs that have won this designation in either the vegetable or flower category: Fernleaf dill in 1992, Purple Ruffles basil in 1987, and Dark Opal basil in 1962.

Lady was developed by the late Ted Torrey when he was head breeder at W. Atlee Burpee and Company. Because the lavender, new on the market this spring, is said to bloom con­sistently its first year from seed, Burpee expects that it will be sold and grown as an annual bedding plant as well as a perennial. For impatient gardeners who ordinarily would have to wait until the second year for their new lavender to bloom, “annualizing” the perennial English lavender could be a boon.

Lavender is generally propagated vegetatively (by tip cuttings or layering) because cultivars seldom breed true from seed. Some herb growers doubt that Lady plants will be any more uniform, but AAS test growers found Lady to be a good performer. The packet included here contains 80 to 100 Lady seeds. Plant some, pass on a few to friends, and let us know what you learn.

Ken Ludwig, a horticulturist and product manager at George C. Ball Corp., Burpee’s parent company, explained how Lady was developed. Torrey, who did a lot of work with herbs including developing Fernleaf dill for Burpee, started almost a decade ago with a field of Munstead lavender grown from seed. He first selected for the earliest bloomers and collected the seeds produced by those plants. These seeds were sown and the resulting plants culled (or rogued) to eliminate any with undesirable traits; the flowers of those that passed the test were then hand-pollinated.

Lavender’s flowers contain both stamens and a pistil. In hand pollination, a pollen-bearing anther from one stamen is touched to the stigma at the top of the pistil; in this case, called self-pollination, both parts were from the same plant. During the bloom period, the flowers had to be kept isolated as much as possible from insects that might cross-pollinate it with pollen from another plant.

Each succeeding generation of plants, after roguing, was self-pollinated to stabilize the early-blooming trait. (A generation is measured from the time a seed is sown and germinates until the plant reaches maturity and produces harvestable seed of its own.) One of the biggest challenges in developing new varieties, Ludwig says, is that the plants must produce viable seed—often a problem with lavenders—in sufficient quantity to warrant commercial production. Seed is far easier to produce and ship (and to insert between the pages of a magazine) than live plants grown from cuttings. Fertility, like early blooming, is a trait that can be selected for in a breeding program.

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