Although rosemary is known as the
herb of remembrance, it is the scent of lavender that makes me recall people and places
from the past a stroll through my grandmothers garden, an after shave my dad
once wore, a handmade sachet crafted by the arthritic hands of an elderly neighbor. If the
evocative fragrance were its only attribute, lavender would still be well worth growing.
However, scent is just the start. Lavenders are also great for edges and hedges, as well
as accents and drifts of color throughout the garden.
Lavender is a member of the mint family and is native to the
Mediterranean region. For centuries, lavender has been used to perfume, cleanse and heal.
Ancient Egyptians wrapped their dead in shrouds that had been dipped in lavender. The
Greeks employed the plant to deter all manner of ills from insomnia to insanity. Its fresh
clean scent made it a favorite with the Romans who used the herb extensively in bath
water. Small wonder its name comes from the Latin word lavare, which means "to
Lavender made its way to England most likely via Rome. During the
Middle Ages, Benedictine monks cultivated the plant for medicinal use. Fictional monk
detective Father Cadfael certainly grew lavender in his walled herb garden. He noted it
was " helpful for all disorders that trouble the head and spirit, and its scent is
The Elizabethans scattered lavender on the floors to perfume the
house, deter insects in the linen closet and mask unpleasant odors. It was also sold on
the streets of London by vendors who claimed it had the power to deter plagues. By this
time people began to realize that the plant was pretty as well as potent, and formal
English knot gardens of the day featured lavender in low clipped hedges.
Today, lavender is prized more as a versatile garden performer
than as a healer. The increasing interest in lavender as an ornamental plant has a great
deal to do with the wide range of choices available nowthere are at least
twenty-eight species of lavenders and untold numbers of varieties. You can select from
short ones, tall ones, greenish-blue ones and gray ones in shades from purple to mauve to
white. All but a few can be grown as perennials throughout America. Unfortunately the
show-stopping Spanish lavender stoechas var. pedunculata should be considered an annual in
areas colder than Zone 7. (Try growing it in a pot that you can move indoors during winter
its well worth the effort.) A Growise expert can tell you which varieties are
best for where you live.
No matter which ones you choose to grow, you must provide full
sun, an airy location and superior drainage, otherwise the dreaded root rot may come to
call. Adding rotted manure and small stones to both clay and sandy soils will help improve
drainage problems. Lavenders are particularly thirsty during their first season so make
sure they get enough water, however dont use fertilizer unless your plants fail to
thrive. Just add a little lime to the soil each spring. Some experts also recommend
sprinkling a bit of potash around the base of each bush in the spring to heighten flower
quality and color.
Spring is also the time to carry out your pruning chores
cut back hard, then snip unruly branches over the growing season. Be sure to stop pruning
by the first of October to give plants a chance to harden off before winter. Harvest
flower stems just as they begin to open. It is recommended that you pick the dark-flowered
lavenders when just one or two flowers are open. Choose a warm, dry day and prune late in
the morning damp flower stalks can encourage mold. Hang small bunches of cuttings
tied with rubber bands upside down to dry in a well-ventilated room. Dont allow
sunlight to hit your bundles or flowers might fade.
Once the heads have dried there are all sorts of ways to enjoy
the harvest. Add a pinch of lavender flowers to soups, salads or breads. Mix the flowers
in potpourris or create your own unique sachets. Then breathe deeply and recapture summer