Lavender is a beautiful plant, most often known for its intoxicating smell. The small purple flowers and the leaves both emit the fragrant perfume that the plant is famous for. With lavender in your garden, you can expect to catch the scent on a breeze as long as the plants are flowering. But is lavender as easy to grow as other herbs? And what can you do with it aside from enjoying its perfume in the garden? Armed with the right knowledge, you can successfully grow lavender in your garden and put it to good use as a scent, in foods, and for medicinal purposes.
How To Grow Lavender
Lavender is the common name for an entire genus of perennial plants called Lavandula. The name comes from the Latin for “to wash,” probably because lavender has long been used in baths as a way to purify the spirit and to scent the body. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean mountain zones. There it grows in the hot, dry sun and in rocky soils. All species of lavender plants are small to medium woody shrubs with silvery-green, narrow leaves. The flowers appear on tall spikes and are small and usually purple.
In spite of lavender’s origins in the desert-like climate of the Mediterranean, it can be grown in a range of areas. In fact, lavender is well known as a garden element in England, with a cool, wet climate that is the opposite of the southern homeland of the plant. Select a spot in your garden that gets the most warmth and sun. Full sun is best. Lavender can grow in many soil conditions, but to get the most oil in the flowers, which is the origin of the scent, the soil should be well-drained, poor, slightly alkaline, and chalky.
Lavender plants are very hardy after you have gotten them established. In fact, if you live in a drought-prone area, plant plenty of lavender. You can expect it to survive and even thrive in your harsh conditions. Until the plants are established, however, give them a little compost and a regular watering. After one year, you should have hardy shrubs that can be given less attention.
You can grow lavender as far north as zone 5. What is more deadly to a lavender plant than cold is dampness and moisture. Having soil that drains well is very important to the success of your plants. If your lavender will be staying outside for the winter and you are in a cold climate, a layer of mulch will help. You might also consider growing lavender in containers and bringing it inside for the winter. The roots of the lavender actually prefer a tight space.
Pruning in the spring is a good idea for lavender shrubs. For the taller varieties, take them back to about a third of the original height. For smaller species, trim back a couple of inches. Whatever you do, though, do not prune until you see new growth developing in the spring. If you prune too early, the plant may not come back to life.
Types Of Lavender
There are hundreds of varieties of lavender out there from which to choose, so the options can get a little overwhelming. They are roughly categorized as English, Spanish, and French, but there are also plenty of other varieties not included in these groups.
- English. The English lavenders are of the species L. angustifolia. The varieties of this species are hardier than others and are better suited to colder and wetter conditions. They grow to a height and width of approximately one and a half to two feet. They bloom twice in the growing season: in June and again in August. These plants are best started from cuttings rather than seeds. Varieties include Hidcote, Rebecca Kay, Munstead, Cedar Blue, Blue Cushion, Melissa, and Richard Grey. Another group of varieties called the lavandins are sometimes classified as English lavender, but they are really hybrids.
- Spanish. Spanish lavender varieties are from the species L. stoechas. They originate in the hot, dry Mediterranean region and are not hardy. The Spanish varieties are very dense and can be thinned down in July to keep air circulating through the branches. There is a great deal of variety in the size of these plants.
- French. The name is misleading, as French lavender is not necessarily from the country of France. They are varieties of the species L. dentata. The word dentata refers to the tooted nature of the leaves. These varieties are not very hardy and should be grown outside only in warm climates. Otherwise, the varieties, like Green Fringe, Grey Fringe, and Linda Ligon, can be grown in containers and brought inside for the winter. The plants are a little bit shorter than English lavender.
When harvesting the flowers, wait until they bloom. As soon as you see the full color of the flowers, you can cut the entire stalk off of the plant. Do this in the morning after the dew has dried. If it can be done, harvest on a dry day. If you are using the flowers fresh for their fragrance, get them to a cool location quickly. The cooler they are, the more fragrant oil they will release. If you want to dry the flowers for potpourri or cooking, you can hang bunches of flowers upside down in a dark location or you can lay them out flat in a sunny spot.
Uses For Lavender
The most obvious use for lavender is any way of capturing its intoxicating scent. You can set fresh flowers in water to enjoy the smell or dry the flowers to use in potpourri, wreathes, and other crafts. One of the unique aspects of lavender is that the flowers retain their fragrance even after they have been dried.
Lavender oil can also be used for its fragrance. It is made by extracting the oil from the flowers of the plant. The oil is also used medicinally. The scent is thought to help relax you and get you to sleep at night, so a sachet in your pillow is a great use for the flowers or the oil. Smelling lavender is also believed to be helpful for treating headaches, while the oil may help with skin issues such as fungal infections, eczema, wounds, and acne. It may help relieve pain as well as heal.
What surprises many people about lavender is that in addition to its delightful scent, you can eat it! Both the flowers and leaves are edible. If you use too much in a recipe, however, you can give your food a perfumy and bitter taste. In other words, a little bit goes a long way when it comes to lavender. English lavender varieties are the best for culinary uses. Other types can be overwhelming in flavor. Try some of these ideas with your lavender harvest.
- Use the leaves of lavender, fresh or dried, in the same way you would use rosemary. The two plants are very similar, but you will get a nice surprise when you substitute lavender leaves for rosemary leaves when roasting meat, potatoes, or vegetables.
- Toss a few fresh flowers in a salad for an interesting flavor twist. Just don’t use too many! If the flavor is overwhelming, take a few out.
- Make a simple syrup by boiling lavender flowers and leaves with the sugar and water. Strain the herbs out before using. The syrup is especially tasty in lemonade and in tea.
- You can also infuse your sugar or salt with the taste of lavender. Mix in lavender flowers and let the salt or sugar sit in a closed container for a week or two. Use the sugar or salt as you would normally.
- Add dried flowers to recipes for cookies, breads, cakes, and practically any dessert. About one tablespoon of dried, crushed flowers per typical dessert recipe is appropriate.
- When following a recipe that calls for lavender, you can use fresh or dried flowers. If the recipe calls for fresh flowers and you have dried, use one-third the amount.
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