Lavender (Lavandula spp.)

Is any herb better known for its scent than lavender? From lingerie drawer sachets and expensive soaps to lavender wands and just short of a million aromatherapy products, lavender is a scent most people find clean and refreshing.

There are at least 25 species of lavenders, not to mention many, many cultivars. As a rule, the plants are small (less than 3 feet), many-branched, woody shrubs with gray-green or silvery 2-inch leaves, narrow and lance-shaped.

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In late spring to midsummer, lavenders produce lovely 6- to 8-inch spikes of tiny, two-lipped purple flowers.

 

How to grow

Lavenders require full sun and soil that has a neutral or slightly sweet pH, is rich with organic matter, and that drains in minutes. (Some growers believe that sandy, less fertile soil produces plants with more fragrance.) Buy plants rather than seeds, because you can’t count on species coming true, and seeds usually take forever to germinate. Other options are to start from cuttings or by layering.

Space plants 2 to 4 feet apart, depending on the species and how much pruning you want to do. Provide some shelter from wind to protect the flower stalks.

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Unfortunately, very few lavenders can survive a winter colder than Zone 6. Lavenders also play myriad roles in an ornamental garden — edging walkways or borders, scattered among other perennials for contrast of form and foliage, or as residents in rock gardens. They’re classic companions to roses,

helping to hide thorny or bare stems, and send bees into a frenzy.

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Cultivars and related plants

English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), the most commonly grown species, is hardy in Zones 6 to 9 and offers numerous cultivars, including ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’, and ‘Twickel Purple’, all with purple flowers and growing 18 to 24 inches tall. For pink, choose ‘Hidcote Pink’ or ‘Miss Katherine’; for white, select ‘Nana Alba’, a fine dwarf cultivar, only 10 inches tall. ‘Lady’ blooms in the first year when grown from seed.

Spike lavender (L. latifolia) is a more upright species that is hardy in Zones 7 to 9. L. dentata, or fringed lavender, has gray-green foliage and dark purple flowers; it’s hardy only in Zones 8 to 10.

Worth looking for and trying to grow indoors or outdoors in Zones 7 to 9 is French lavender (L. stoechas), which has extremely narrow leaves. The flowers are not only a vibrant rosy purple, but appear in tight little cylinders topped by a flag of pink petals. A variety, L. stoechas var. pedunculata, has even more dramatic, elongated blooms.

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Lore and usage

A famous story about lavender involves Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French perfume chemist who discovered its healing properties in the 1920s when he burned his hand and plunged it into a vat of lavender oil. This successful move is credited with launching aromatherapy.

The Romans thought that the asp — that little Egyptian snake that snuggled up with Cleopatra — lived among lavender plants. But that didn’t keep people out of the lavender patch. After all, it was also believed to be an aphrodisiac, good for “the panting and passion of the heart.”

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We think lavender tastes like perfume and has enough to do without masquerading as food. You can use lavender in virtually any cosmetic or cleaning agent that you want to scent, and of course, in potpourris, sachets, and sleep pillows.

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Toss a few petals or leaves in the rinse water of your lingerie or sheets.

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