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Plant Profile: Lovely Lavendars

by Lynn Hunt

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 grandmother’s 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 wash."

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 calming."

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 now—there 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 – it’s 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 don’t 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. Don’t 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 memories.

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