Lavender is one of the most beloved and oft-used plants in the history of human civilization, and its name has become synonymous with a light shade of purple. Nowadays, its delicate foliage and beautiful, distinctively scented flowers make it a garden favorite.
The genus name of lavenders, Lavandula, means “to wash” in Greek. Known for their antiseptic and medicinal properties, lavender extracts and products have long been used as disinfectants, fresheners, and laundry and bath additives. Lavender essential oil is commonly used in aromatherapy (the practice of healing the body and soothing the mind with herbal extracts).
Lavenders are native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea (southern Europe, northern Africa) and southwest Asia. They’re perennial plants adapted to warm, dry summers, winter precipitation, and sunny exposures. This makes them ideal for our inland California climate. Once established, their water requirements are low to minimal, and they’re well suited for water-thrifty landscapes. They’re also outstanding performers in mixed perennial beds and herb gardens.
Beneficial pollinators such as honeybees and butterflies find lavender flowers irresistible. On the other hand, the aromatic chemical compounds in lavender leaves act as natural pest repellants. Lavender plants are rarely bothered by harmful insects, and snails and deer avoid them.
Soil type is an important consideration when growing lavenders. They absolutely require well-drained soil, and will suffer in soggy soils or heavy clay. Amend garden beds with organic matter or fine gravel, or locate plants on a raised berm. Here are a few lavenders to consider planting in your garden:
English lavender (L. angustifolia).This is the iconic, sweetly-scented lavender plant most commonly used in sachets, perfumes, and soaps, or to lend subtle flavor to drinks and foods. It has dense, narrow green leaves and delicate flowers that grow in whorls at the end of each stem. Some excellent landscape varieties include ‘Munstead’ (a heat-tolerant dwarf with purple flowers), ‘Hidcote’ (a compact plant with vivid blue-purple flowers), and ‘Thumbelina Leigh’ (a tidy dwarf with intensely scented flowers). There are also several late-blooming, commercially valuable English lavender hybrids (Lavandins); two of the best known are ‘Grosso’ and ‘Provence.’
Spanish lavender (L. stoechas). Spanish lavender flowerheads resemble small pineapples; each has a dense, oblong cluster of small flowers topped with several petal-like bracts. This species blooms heavily in early spring, then more lightly in summer. Its foliage is grayish-green; the flowers vary in color depending on the variety.
French lavender (L. dentata). Despite its common name, this species originated in Spain. The specific epithet “dentata” (meaning toothed) was given to this plant for its leaves, which have serrated, tooth-like edges. Its pale purple flowers resemble Spanish lavender, but it’s longer-blooming.
Goodwin Creek lavender (L. ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’). This is a vigorous, long-lived lavender with stunning silver-grey foliage. It performs admirably in hot-summer areas, and blooms almost year-round in mild weather. It bears numerous spikes of violet flowers with a spicy-sweet scent.
Fernleaf or Egyptian lavender (L. multifida). This unusual variety has soft, finely-divided, grayish-green foliage and distinctive, three-pronged flowerheads with purplish-blue blooms. It’s long-blooming and very tolerant of heat and dry conditions.
Like all members of the mint family (Lamiaceae), lavenders have square stems. Try rolling a lavender stem between your thumb and index finger; the flattened sides are very noticeable.
If you enjoy botanical handicrafts, try making sweetly fragrant, decoratively woven lavender wands. They’re relatively simple to create, and they retain their scent for years. English lavenders are best suited for this, but other long-stemmed lavenders can be used if you prefer a spicier, less perfumy aroma. (Spanish and French lavender will not work well; the flowerheads are too bulky.)
For a special outing, visit one of the several lavender farms in northern California. Pageo Lavender Farm in Turlock is the closest, with peak bloom in June. Bluestone Meadows in Placerville grows 24 different cultivars of English and French lavender; their annual festival will be held on June 16-17. Your senses will be well-rewarded!
For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/.