In the Garden October 2016

By Rhiannon Allen

In keeping with our recent focus on drought-tolerant plants, I’d like to discuss that beautiful ornamental member of the mint family, lavender (Lavandula).

This is a small shrub widely admired for the soothing aroma of its leaves and flowers, native to the Mediterranean and India. Lavender features the small, grayish, slightly fuzzy leaves characteristic of plants adapted to sunny, dry conditions. The small size and fuzzy nature of the leaves reduce transpiration of moisture, and the gray color reflects strong sunlight. This plant is readily available in nurseries, and ornaments many Pacific Northwest gardens that have full sun exposure.

The lavender commonly used in gardening comes in three species. Most common is Lavandula angustifolia. The term Lavandula is derived from the Latin Lavo, referring to the ancient use of this plant to scent bathwater. Angustifolia means “narrow leaves,” which refers to the particularly slender leaves of what is usually called “English lavender,” the species most commonly used in gardening, cooking and the production of bath products. This species is available with flower colors that range from white through deep purple. The most common variety is Munstead, noted for its medium size (18″ height and spread) and purple-blue flowers. Hidcote is about the same size, but sports flowers of a deeper purple. Both are fine additions to any sunny garden, and make excellent low hedges, as was seen at one garden on our last Point Roberts Garden Tour.

A less popular lavender species is Lavandula dentata. As the name implies, its leaves are toothed, with indented edges. These leaves are slightly fuzzier than those of L. angustifolia, which is why some people call it cotton lavender. But here is where we get into naming difficulties. Cotton lavender is also used as a vernacular name for the completely unrelated Santolina, which sports yellow, button-like flowers. Is this confusing? Well, prepare for more. Some people call L. angustifolia French lavender, which is also used for the third species in common garden usage.

This third species is Lavandula stoechas. This is often called French lavender (groan!) or Spanish lavender (although it’s L. dentata that’s native to Spain), or bunny ears (my favorite). The only thing it’s never called is English lavender. Although its foliage is similar to that of L. angustifolia, the flower heads look like little pineapples topped off by a crown of purple rabbit ears.

What all three species have in common is their potential for water-wise gardening. Pair these small shrubs with other gray-foliaged plants like Artemisia, Santolina, Senecio, Cistus, Russian sage, or wooly thyme for a gray-themed garden. If you really want to go this route, you can even choose a white-flowered lavender like L. angustifolia Alba. Or pick up the lavender flower hues with pink cosmos, sedum Autumn Joy, or other flowers in the soft pink through light purple range.

Although lavender can be grown from seed or soft-wood cuttings placed in moist sand, most nurseries stock common varieties at affordable prices. Want one of the more usual varieties? Why not contact Lady Bug Nursery to see if Darlene can locate a plant for you? Place plants in a well-draining soil that receives direct sunlight for several hours each day. Drainage is vital, so set the plant’s base a little higher than the surrounding soil, or add a handful of sand or gravel to the planting hole if you think your soil might retain water too well for this moisture-averse plant. Do not let organic mulch like compost or bark mulch touch the stem because these also will retain too much moisture. Although lavender is supreme at conserving moisture, the moisture it releases in tiny beads of nectar in its flowers attract pollinators from far and wide.

While lavender generally lives only about 12 years, and will grow leggy and woody if left unattended, you can take steps to ensure a lush plant over the years. Fertilize only yearly, preferably when new growth is starting in spring. Shear or cut back the plants to the oldest growth that shows some green either in early spring or after flowers have died. A good video on pruning lavender is available at mountainvalleygrowers.com/podcast.htm.

Lavender is a delight inside the house as well as outside. In summer, as the tiny flowers begin to open, I clip stems and hang them upside down in bunches to dry.  Once dry, these bunches are terrific for dried flower arrangements. I also stuff small organza bags with loose dried flowers to scent closets. At local markets and craft fairs, you will see lavender used in soaps and lavender wands. What’s more, it finds its way into the kitchen. It is a vital ingredient in herbes de Provence, and can be used to scent baked cookies, sugar, jelly and lemonade. Inhale and enjoy!

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