Although originally native to southern France and the Canary Islands, lavender proved quite hardy and happy growing in England, and in the sixteenth century it was dubbed the "queen" of the scented herb garden. A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), with its silvery foliage and tall lavender flowers, this herb is an attractive addition to any perennial bed. Add lavender's characteristic scent that is stored in oil glands embedded among its flowers, leaves and stems, and the result is a plant that has served people functionally as well as aesthetically.
When used in the garden, lavender's fine, needle-shaped, silver-gray foliage makes it effective both as a contrast plant and for use in silver or white "moon gardens." There is even a white-flowering cultivar, Lavandula angustifolia 'Alba', available for those who prefer the simple elegance of an all-silver garden, or as an even sharper contrast to more colorful plants. On the other hand, more traditional lavenders can provide deep vibrancy in midsummer with their richly scented lavender, purple, or pink blooms. Although the entire plant is aromatic, the flowers have the strongest aroma. The scent also attracts bees, which is an added bonus for any garden.
The lavender plant does well in full sun in soil that is dry, well-drained, and low in fertility. In fact, the drier the soil, the more oil the plant's glands will produce. It is an excellent drought-tolerant plant for the rock garden or in xeriscapes. It is also a worthy member of the cutting garden as its bright, fragrant flowers are a welcome addition to both live and dried arrangements. When harvesting lavender for its scent, cut sprigs when the flower buds are just showing color, but before they open fully. This is when the essential oils in the flowers are strongest. For floral arrangements, harvest once the flowers have opened by cutting the stem 6 inches below the flower spike in midmorning after the dew has dried. To dry a bouquet, bundle eight to 10 stems together and hang the bunches upside down in a cool, dark place.
There are many species of lavender, from L. angustifolia, the common lavender that reputedly has the best oils in the industry, to the tender lavenders, L. dentata (French lavender) and L. stoechas (Spanish lavender), which must be grown as annuals in the Upper Midwest. Throughout the Garden there are several cultivars of common lavender, as well as the straight species, growing successfully in different areas.
- Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote' grows 12 to 20 inches tall, has silver-gray foliage and boasts deep violet-blue flowers. Look for 'Hidcote' growing throughout the English Walled Garden.
- L. angustifolia 'Munstead' is an early blooming lavender, more compact at 12 to 15 inches, with true deep lavender flowers and an especially strong fragrance. This popular cultivar is found in great numbers in the Rose and Home Landscape Gardens.
While it is difficult to grow lavender from seed, this herb can be propagated by dividing large clumps in the fall or taking stem cuttings in summer. Mature lavender clumps can be left intact throughout the winter to add interest to the winter landscape with their silvery, upright architecture. Gardeners should then cut the clump down to 6 inches in early spring to encourage vigorous new growth. It is imperative to provide lavender with a well-drained site if it is to survive the cold and damp of winter.
Lavender is indeed a versatile modern plant with a long history of cosmetic, medicinal, and decorative uses.