Tom and Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardner

Most gardeners enjoy the lush beauty of lavender but do not know that the genus lavendula comes in many different shapes, sizes, and degrees of hardiness. Lavender thrives in full sun and well-drained soils with a pH of 7.0 to 7.3. The hardiest varieties have no trouble surviving in zone 4 while many of the tender species will not withstand a frost.

There are hundreds of lavender varieties around the world with perhaps 50 regularly found in commerce. They vary in many ways. Colors range from deep purple to blue, pink and white. They can be as small as 12 inches high to as large as 3 feet in diameter. The earliest ones bloom in late May in our region while the latest don’t show their flowers until the second week of July. Leaves can be quite green or almost silver.

The major reason for all of this variation is that lavender hybridizes very easily. If you want a true copy of an existing plant, you’ll need one that has been propagated by a cutting. With lavender grown from seed, there is a very real chance that you will get a plant that is close to, but not the same as, the parent plant. This may not matter a great deal if you are only planting one or two lavenders in your garden; however, if you are putting in a hedge and want all of your plants to have the same color and be in bloom at the same time, it may make a great deal of difference.

Hardy varieties

The hardiest lavenders are the L. angustifolia family, sometimes called English lavender. These plants have small smooth leaves; they usually grow 18 to 24 inches high and 15 to 20 inches in diameter. There are several hundred angustifolia varieties available commercially including the old standbys Hidcote and Munstead. These plants tend to bloom in June on 6 to 8 inch stems; some, including Madeline Marie, Rebecca Kay, and Two Amys, have excellent second blooms from late August until frost. They survive our winters very nicely.

A second group of hardy lavenders are the L. X intermedia varieties which are also called lavindins. These hybrids tend to be larger than the angustifolas with some, Grappenhall and Dutch, for example, averaging two feet high and three feet in diameter. In south central Pennsylvania, they bloom in late June or early July on 15 to 18 inch stems. The intermedias are somewhat less winter hardy than the angustifolias.

Tender varieties

L.. dentata, L. multifida, L. stoechas, and L. lanata are all tender lavenders that will do well in the summer garden but need to be brought indoors for the winter. They make great houseplants. With a sunny window and regular feeding, many tender varieties such as Christiana and Goodwin Creek Grey will bloom year round.

Cooking with Lavender

Most people are familiar with the use of lavender in decorating or bath and body products; however, they are not aware that cooking with the flowers can add a very interesting and complex flavor to foods. We find the best flavor comes from any of the angustifolia lavenders. Although fresh and dried lavender can be used in place of one another in most recipes, the sweet, perfumed nature of fresh lavender flowers seems particularly appropriate in desserts. While also good in sweets, dried lavender flowers tend to have a somewhat more herbal taste—somewhat like thyme or marjoram—and can be combined with other herbs and spices for more savory uses, such as marinating meat, chicken, and fish. As lavender is a rather strong flavor, start small (you can always add more); substituting lavender for rosemary is also a good place to begin to experiment with lavender in food.