Plant Evaluation Notes


View All Studies

Plant Evaluation: Lavenders for Northern Gardens

Lavenders for Northern Gardens  |  Issue 42 2017

Richard G. Hawke, Plant Evaluation Manager and Associate Scientist


Download Study



Lavender trial beds in the Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden.

Lavender trial beds in the Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden.

Lavenders have long been cultivated for their broad herbal and medicinal uses, and are enduringly popular as ornamentals in gardens and landscapes around the world. Famously, bountiful fields of lavender grown for its fragrant oil are the essence of France’s Provence region. Lavender derives from lavare, Latin for “to bathe or wash," because the ancient Romans steeped bundles of this aromatic herb in bathing water. Lavender is familiar in everyday life, giving its distinctive scent and color to a myriad of personal, home, and culinary goods.

Lavenders (Lavandula spp.) are Old World plants, with 28 species native to the Mediterranean region, northern Africa, western Asia, and the Middle East. While technically a subshrub, the woody stems are often injured or killed in cold winters—L. angustifolia, L. xintermedia, and L. xchaytoriae, are typically listed hardy in USDA Zones 6-9. Consequently, lavenders are treated as perennials in areas where stem dieback is the rule rather than the exception. The mild climate of their native range is so unlike the temperate Upper Midwest that growing lavenders may seem impossible. Despite their generally tender aspect and the constraints of their cultural requirements, some lavenders grow successfully in northern regions.

Like other members of the mint family (Lamiaceae), lavenders feature bilabiate or two-lipped flowers arranged in verticillate or whorled clusters on square stems. While its name would imply otherwise, English or common lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, is a native of the Mediterranean region and represented in cultivation by a plethora of cultivars. The small flowers, clustered in six to eight verticillasters, form compact terminal spikes on stiff stems held above the leaves. Flower colors range from shades of lavender or violet to purple, pink, and white, usually with darker or contrasting calyces. All parts of the plant are tomentose and aromatic due to volatile oils in the inflorescences, stems, and leaves. The oppositely paired leaves are generally narrowly lanceshaped, about 2 inches long, silvery to gray-green, and evergreen in mild winters. English lavender has a mounded habit, 12 to 36 inches tall depending on the cultivar, and can grow quite wide with age under ideal conditions.

Lavandin, Lavandula xintermedia, is a natural hybrid of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia, another Mediterranean native. There are only slight differences related to flower size and bloom season between the two species and lavandin cultivars are plentiful, too. Lavandula xchaytoriae, a man-made cross between English lavender and woolly lavender, L. lanata, originated in England in the 1980s. It has the fuzzy silver leaves of woolly lavender and some of the cold hardiness of L. angustifolia.

Lavenders prefer full sun and well-drained to dry, alkaline soils—gravelly or sandy soils are ideal. Good soil drainage, especially in heavier clay soils, is crucial to year-round survival. Maintenance needs are few since lavenders do not require regular irrigation or fertilizer to flourish. Deadheading is the gardeners’ choice but is helpful in keeping plants tidy. Shearing lavenders by one-third after blooming removes spent flower stalks and shapes the plant. Substantial pruning may be necessary on severely winter-damaged plants; cut stems back after new growth begins in the spring. Fungal root rot can be troublesome in poorly drained soils and during periods of heavy rainfall and/or high humidity. Fungal and bacterial leaf spotting, stem blight, and wilt are also possible problems in warm, wet weather. Fourlined plant bugs, caterpillars, and northern knot nematodes are occasional pests. The natural oils in lavenders repel most grazing mammals such as deer and rabbits.

The essential oil of lavender scents perfumes, balms, and soaps; dried lavender sprigs are a staple in potpourris and sachets, as well as flavoring for teas, condiments, and foodstuffs. By most accounts, English lavender yields the finest quality oil; nonetheless, ‘Grosso’ lavandin rather than English lavender is most widely grown for commercial oil production in France. As a garden plant, lavenders of all stripes are exceptional in rustic to traditional landscapes. At home in flower, vegetable, and herb gardens, lavenders fit especially well in rockeries and xeric or waterwise gardens. Lavender is a versatile garden plant, whether as a specimen in a border or pot, massed as a groundcover, or hedged to define a space. The silvery leaves are a wonderful counterpoint to a variety of leaf and flower colors, while the blossoms draw an assortment of pollinators.

Lavender table 1
Lavender trial beds

Lavender trial beds in the Lavin Plant Evaluation Garden.

List of Sections
The Evaluation Study
The Performance Report
Top-rated Lavenders

View All Studies


Armitage, A.M. 2008. Herbaceous Perennial Plants, Third Edition. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing L.L.C.

Jones, L. 2008. Hardy Lavenders. RHS Plant Trials and Awards Bulletin. Woking, Surrey, UK: Royal Horticultural Society

Phillips, E. and C.C. Burrell. 2004. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Inc.

Royal Horticultural Society, Online Plant Finder.

The Plant Evaluation Program is supported by the Woman’s Board of the Chicago Horticultural Society and the Searle Research Endowment.

Plant Evaluation Notes© are periodic publications of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is one of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.