Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one perennial, one edible plant, one bulb and one shrub to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Let’s look at the perennial chosen for 2020, lavender.
What is Lavender?
The word lavender refers to any plant in the genus Lavandula, a genus that contains some 47 species of annuals, perennials and shrubs, all from the Old World. Most are found in the Mediterranean region, with outlying species as far away as Cape Verde and India. Most too are fairly tender plants, but a few species are hardy enough to be grown outdoors all year in temperate climates.
Of course, when people say “lavender,” they usually mean just one species: English lavender (L. angustifolia). This is by far the most widely grown species. It’s the lavender of soaps, potpourris, perfumes and gardens. In spite of the name English lavender, it is not native to England, but the Mediterranean (Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, etc.)
The word lavender is thought to be derived from the Old French lavandre, which can be traced back to the Latin lavare, both referring to washing, as clothes used to be washed in lavender water to keep them fresh and scented.
Lavender is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae).
Everywhere you look, people are incorporating this multifaceted plant into their daily lives, It’s seen in gardens, as well as in kitchens and décor. It’s even a special part of health and wellness routines. The texture, scent, attractiveness, and overall usability of lavender make it one of the most versatile plants you can grow.
This is the hardiest form in terms of garden performance. There are several varieties, such as ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’ or ‘SuperBlue’, that have been trialed to overwinter reliably in USDA zones 5 through 9 and, under the right conditions, you can keep English lavender going in zone 4 and even 3 as well.
English lavender blooms sit on spikes rising tall above a gray-green base of narrow leaves. Both the florets and foliage are heavily scented. The plant flowers mostly in pink-purple colors, but some silver-white varieties exist as well. It can grow as high as 3 to 6 feet (1–2 m) in mild climates, but most of the top-selling varieties today are dwarf varieties, which grow to a more manageable height of 6–24 in. (15–60 cm).
Additional varieties of English lavender include ‘Annet’, ‘Aromatico’, ‘Big Time Blue’, ‘Blue Spear’, ‘Ellagance’, ‘Lady’, AAS Winner ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Lavance’, ‘Sentivia’, ‘Sweet Romance’ and ‘Vintro’, among others.
Most gardeners consider English lavender to be a perennial, but it is actually a small shrub.
Spanish and French Lavender
Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) and French lavender (L. dentata), are also natives of the Mediterranean. Their leaves are longer and gray-green, and the taller flower stems are topped with thicker pink-purple pinecone-like flower clusters crowned with similarly colored bracts. (Stoechas is a Latin word derived from the Greek word for “in rows,” which is how these cones generally display their tiny purple clusters.) This type of lavender is more fragile than English varieties and it is also less winter hardy (USDA Zones 6–9). However, it still tolerates a wide range of temperatures. Its fragrance also makes it very attractive to bees—an excellent pollinator-friendly option for your garden or patio.
Some reblooming Spanish lavenders, such as the Anouk or Bandera series, flower heavily in the spring with a second flush of flowers later in the growing season. Spanish and French lavender work well indoors, too, and can be a scented décor or gift item. Additional varieties include ‘Castilliano’, ‘Javelin Forte’, ‘LaVela’, ‘Papillon’ and ‘Primavera’.
Then there are additional varieties, such as the hybrid species lavandin (L. × intermedia [L. angustifolia × L. latifolia]), a cross between English lavender and aspic lavender. Such lavandin varieties as ‘Phenomenal’, ‘Provence’, ‘Torch’, ‘Hidcote Giant’, ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘Fred Boutin’ give an even wider array of lavender types, colors and habits. They too are generally less hardy than English lavender, about USDA 6 to 9.
With lavender, there is, as they say, something for everyone!
Ideal Growing Conditions
Lavender grows best in full sun in dry, well-drained soil; it does not like saturated roots. Adding inorganic drainage materials, such as gravel or sand, to the soil of a raised bed could help improve the conditions for successful lavender growing. Lavenders of all types need little or no additional fertilizer, and it is good practice to provide air circulation. If you live in a region of high humidity, watch out for root rot due to fungus infection. This is sometimes aggravated by using organic mulches, which can trap moisture around the base of the plant.
Quick tip: Use gravel or crushed rocks rather than organic mulches at the base of the plant for a better growing environment.
In very cold climates (USDA hardiness zones 4 and less), try growing English lavender on a south-facing slope, planting it on a well-drained mound. Look for a spot that is hotter than average, perhaps protected from cooling winds. (Lavender does love a hot summer!) Winter protection in the form of a thick straw mulch or a covering of a white breathable landscape fabric may be necessary.
In Your Garden
Planting lavender as a front border means you’ll see it up-close. Feel free to run your fingers through the soft foliage and enjoy the fragrance! Lavender can also be planted in a mixed patio container with other sun-loving plants, or by itself as a fresh way to scent the air in a small space.
In really cold climates, well… just grow it as an annual!
The flowers and leaves of lavender plants are used in many herbal medicines and self-care regimes. Homemade projects and recipes include herbal teas, culinary spices, essential oils, aromatherapy, balms, and more. Lavender is widely added to bath salts, soaps, soaks, perfumes, etc., for a fresh fragrance and calming effect. As a strong-scented herb, dried lavender florets can also be used to repel pests in the garden, or even in the home closet where a fragrant sachet can ward off clothes moths. French chefs use lavender as a fragrant spice to both savory and sweet dishes.
All of these uses add up to quite a versatile and enjoyable flower that’s become a must-have in gardens and homes around the world. And it’s easy to see how 2020 can be your Year of the Lavender!