by David Salman
My love of Lavender has been with me for many years and is only getting stronger as I continue to propagate, plant and enjoy this wonderful herb from the Old World. Lavender, like olives, apples and grapes, has thousands of years of history co-existing with mankind. It is a horticultural treasure that continues to serve us by providing:
- Healing oils
- Foliage and dried flowers for culinary and herbal use
- Copious nectar for our honeybees, wild bumblebees and butterflies
- Unmatched beauty in our waterwise landscapes.
A number of species in the genus Lavandula are native to the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe, North Africa and the islands off the coast of Europe and Africa in the eastern Atlantic. It has adapted to growing in dry climates with hot summers and mild to cold winters and in “lean”, well drained soils. The most commonly planted Lavandula in cultivation include Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and French hybrid lavender (Lavandula x intermedia).
Lavender is actually a small to medium sized sub-shrub with evergreen foliage and woody stems. The flower spikes we so enjoy are actually a two piece ensemble consisting of the calyx, a paper-like sheath, which holds the corolla, the flower. Quite often, the calyx and corolla are of different colors giving the flowers spike a bi-colored appearance. When we dry the lavender flower spike, the flowers actually fall off and it is the calyx that remains attached to the stem and contains the essential oils that we smell.
As you can see from the flower comparison photo, even among the different varieties (“cultivars”) of Lavender, there are differences in the shape and configuration of the flower spike.
- French hybrid varieties, like the superb cultivar ‘Gros Bleu’ have long stemmed spikes that are longer and larger than the English Lavender
- ‘Vera’, ‘Sharon Roberts’, ‘Royal Velvet’ and ‘Buena Vista’ have longer, thinner spikes
- English varieties like ‘Mitcham Gray’ , ‘Thumbelina Leigh’ and ‘Hidcote Superior’ have short stubby spikes
- Spanish lavender has a distinctly different flower with the calyxes tightly stacked on the stem and topped with a showy rabbit ear-like bract.
This year I’m introducing Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead Purple’. I don’t know that it is actually a direct descendent of ‘Munstead’ , but it is a seedling volunteer with ‘Munstead’ shaped flower spikes and there are ‘Munstead’ plants elsewhere in the Santa Fe landscape where I found the original plant. What attracted my eye to the plant are the unusually dark blue calyxes and dark flowers (corollas) that open a deep violet-purple and age to purple. It is more darkly colored than even ‘Hidcote’ which has long been considered one of the darkest English types. The foliage also has a bit more silver than most other English types. The color is very difficult to capture on film or digitally, so you’ll just need to trust me when I say it will thrill you with its darkness.
Lavender plants are at their best in the drier parts of the US like the Great Plains, Intermountain West and West Coast (which has a true Mediterranean climate; wet winters and dry summers). The key is to make sure you choose a variety with sufficient winter cold hardiness for your region. (‘Vera’ and ‘Pastor’s Pride’ are among the most cold hardy.)
Yet with proper soil preparation, and planting site selection, Lavender can also thrive in moister, more humid climates like the Mid-West, East Coast and Mid-Atlantic states. The key is to plant in a spot that has:
- Full sun with good air circulation
- A fast draining, sandy or gravel soil (no rich “chocolate cake” type loams or clay soils)
- A raised or sloped bed, ideally against a hot wall or along a cement/asphalt walk or driveway where the reflected heat keeps growing conditions hotter and drier.
One of the most wonderful attributes of planting lavender in the garden is that the lavender’s foliage and flowers make all the perennials planted with them look better. They are superb companion plants for many other xeric perennials that thrive in the same growing conditions.
Here are just a few great perennial companions:
- Agastache (Hummingbird Mint)
- Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)
- Penstemon (Beardtongue)
- Calylophus and Oenothera (Sundrops and Evening Primrose)
- Nepeta (Catmint)
- Salvia greggi ‘Furman’s Red’, ‘Ultra Violet’, ‘Raspberry Delight’ (Texas Bush Sage)
- Phlomis (Jerusalem Sage)