Lavender - Lovely But Confusing

Tom Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

Lavender is one of the most enjoyable plants for any gardener. It has lovely flower spikes, a great aroma, is very drought tolerant, and grows in poor soils. It has few insect pests. The blossoms can be used for craft or culinary purposes and have long been a staple of herbal medicine. Its gray-green foliage looks good all year in the perennial garden, and it attracts butterflies.

At the same time, lavender is a much misunderstood plant. Gardeners face an array of varieties and names such as English, French, Spanish, and Dutch. Often, there are references to lavenders and lavindins. All told, there are more than 250 named lavenders on the market so it is little wonder that confusion exists. When buying, be sure to read the label and insist on knowing the botanical name; only then can you be sure of what you are getting.

Hardy Varieties Let's begin with a review of the different kinds of lavender. What is often referred to as "English" (or sometimes "Dutch") lavender is botanically known as either L. angustifolia or L. x intermedia. Some experts refer to the angustifolias as "lavenders" and to the intermedias as "lavindins." The angustfolias have small, narrow leaves usually about an inch long and a quarter inch wide; the leaves of the intermedias are about twice that size. Both are hardy to zone 5.

The best known angustifolias are Hidcote and Munstead. Hidcote has superb purple blossoms while Munstead has a somewhat lighter color. Both grow to be about two feet high and wide. Their blossoms -- on 6-8 inch stems - are very fragrant and are popular for crafting, cooking, and medicinal purposes. Other popular angustifolias include Royal Purple, Backhouse Nana, Lady, and the pinkish-white blooming Rosea.

The intermedia varieties tend to be larger than the angustifolias. Some of them are 3-4 feet in diameter and two feet high with the flowers produced on stalks 20-24 inches long. Provence and Grosso are probably the most popular intermedias with Seal and Pierre Boutin giving them good competition. Their masses of three inch long dark purple blossoms make a real "statement" in the garden from mid-June through mid-July. All four varieties are excellent dried and can be used to make lavender wands.

Tender Lavenders Most so-called French or Spanish lavenders are lovely in the garden in spring and summer but will not survive a frost. These include L. stoechas, L. multifida, L. dentata, L. lanata, and L. pinatta. These varieties are not as aromatic as their hardy cousins and their blossoms are quite different. Interestingly, they do very well as houseplants; kept in a sunny window and regularly fertilized, they will bloom all year.

Care and Feeding Lavenders need full sun, good drainage, and slightly alkaline soil; you should test your soil, adding lime if necessary. Test kits of varying quality and reliability are available from most nurseries. For a thorough soil analysis stop by the Penn State Agricultural Extension Service office and pick up one of their $6.00 test kits. Heavy clay soils need the addition of sand for lavenders in order to insure good drainage.

Mulch lavenders with a one-inch layer of sand, white pebbles, or oyster shell; this will reflect the sunlight back into the plant and help prevent fungus diseases. Leaving adequate spacing between plants will 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.

One note of caution. Lavender loses its stem and leaf color in winter, and many gardeners assume it has died. That is usually not the case so do not be too hasty in pulling it up and throwing it out. I planted 800 lavenders last June and watered them only twice - once when they were planted and again in early August. Ninety percent of these plants made it through the winter despite our severe drought. Even now--in early June--plants that I was confident were dead last week are making new growth.

If you are looking for a versatile herb that has stood the test of time, consider lavender. It has been around since the time of the Greeks and Romans and continues today to provide beauty and fragrance to those lucky enough to have some growing in their gardens.

Find the Latin confusing ... then read

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