Lavender, 1999 Herb of the Year

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

Lavender was chosen the 1999 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association. A wonderfully fragrant woody perennial, lavender has over 2,500 years of recorded use as a strewing herb, a mood tonic, a fragrance, an insect repellent, and a food flavoring. Ancient Egyptians used it in the mummification process. Medieval and Renaissance laundresses were called "lavenders" because they used lavender in the storage of clean laundry. Lavender was brought to this country by the Pilgrims in the early 1600’s; at that time, lavender flowers sewn in a cap were thought to "comfort the brain very well."

A member of the mint family, there are 28 species of lavender; some are hardy in Zones 5-11, while others are tender and best grown in pots in those areas. These tender varieties include Fringed or Spanish lavender (Lavendula stoechas), French lavender (L. dentata), Spike lavender (L. latifolia), and Downy lavender (L. multifida). There is some confusion with common names, so it is always best to check the botanical name when buying a lavender. These tender plants can be grown outside in pots in the summer, then brought inside to a bright windowsill for the winter (bringing them in two weeks before the heat goes on in the house helps to acclimatize the plant). The soil in the pot should contain some sand, perlite, or vermiculite to aid in drainage. Water when soil is dry to the touch and fertilize every three weeks. Spider mites and white flies can be controlled by insecticidal soap; plants should be trimmed in the spring and fall. While these varieties are not as fragrant as the hardy lavenders, they will reward you with blooms almost year-round.

The most widely grown hardy lavender is English lavender (L. angustifolia, sometimes sold as L. vera or L. officinalis). There are many varieties of English lavender, from eight inches to three feet tall, with flowers of white, pink or various shades of purple. The two most popular English lavenders are ‘Munstead’ (14" tall with lilac-colored flowers) and ‘Hidcote’ (16" tall with deep purple-blue flowers); both have a sweet fragrance. All lavenders need full sun and good drainage; they are moderately drought tolerant. Lavenders like alkaline soil; you may want to test your soil, adding lime if found necessary. Heavy clay soils need the addition of sand for lavenders; compost is the only fertilizer needed. Mulch lavenders with a 2" layer of sand or white pebbles, which will reflect the sunlight back into the plant and help prevent fungus diseases. Leaving adequate spacing between plants will also help air circulation. Lavenders benefit from a cover of evergreen branches in the winter and a pruning of not more than one-third of the plant in the spring. Deer do not appear to care for the taste of lavender; in fact, some gardeners plant lavender among other plants as a deterrent to deer.

Although some lavenders (most notably ‘Lady’, Burpee’s All-American Winner for 1994) can be grown from seed, propagation of lavenders is most successful when done from cuttings or by layering. To take a cutting, find a 6" branch, grasp the tip and gently pull down to break off. The cutting should have some of the "heel" from the trunk of the mother plant. Take off lower leaves before inserting in growing medium. Cuttings are best taken from May through mid-August. Layering can be done in the spring. Bend an outside branch gently to the ground. Leave about 6" of leaves on the growing tip. Wound the stem slightly in the spot where you want roots, pinning that area into the ground; then cover with soil. Stake the remaining branch tip upright and water. If rooted by fall, cut it off from mother plant and leave in place until spring. If not, recheck in spring.

Lavender blooms in June, with a secondary crop again in late summer. Harvest when the first bud on the flower stalk is starting to open. Bind a small bunch with a rubber band and hang with a paper clip in a warm, dry, dark spot. When dry pack away in boxes or plastic bags for craft projects or culinary use. Most people are familiar with the use of lavender in decorating or cosmetics; however, it can also be used to flavor jellies, honeys, cookies, breads, cakes, fruit desserts, drinks, grilled meats, chicken, or fish. To make lavender sugar for tea or baking, blend in a food processor 2 tablespoons dried lavender flowers (always making sure they have not been sprayed) with 1 cup sugar. Store in airtight container. Lavender lemonade can be made by steeping for 5 minutes 1/2 cup dried lavender flowers in water that has been brought to the boil . Strain and use as part of the water in making frozen lemonade.

In the garden or in the kitchen, it’s easy to see why lavender is the Herb of the Year.

Read other articles about herbs

Read other gardening articles by Madeline Wajda