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Lavender Blue, Lavender Green
by Jodi DeLong
by Jodi DeLong


Writing about plants and gardening is just one part of Jodi¹s professional writing business. She¹s been a garden columnist for the Atlantic Co-operator for over five years, and last year was invited to do a biweekly column in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Canada¹s oldest independent daily newspaper. In addition, she writes regular garden features for Saltscapes magazine, Manitoba Co-operator, Grainews, Rural Delivery, and has also had various feature articles in Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, Complete Canadian Gardener, Aquascapes Lifestyles, and East Coast Gardener. Jodi sits on the National Board of Directors for PWAC, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, as Atlantic Regional Director, and is also a member of the Writers Federation of Nova Scotia. When she¹s not writing, she¹s gardening, reading about gardening, photographing gardens, thinking about gardening, or ignoring the housework.

April 20, 2003

Lavender. The very name evokes a romantic, clean fragrance, a glorious burst of purple shades, memories of scented closets, lace sachets, bees drunk on pollen.

I'm not sure when I first became enamoured of the plant and its fragrance, but memories of my grandmother's love for Yardley's "Old English Lavender" soap still cause me to seek this product in stores. Throughout our gardens, the grey-green foliage and purple flowers of lavender plants add a punctuating burst of fragrance for anyone who brushes past the plants. Year round, I keep a dish of dried lavender flowers beside my computer, where its fresh scent is soothing to a writer faced with deadlines. I seek out lavender bathproducts, lavender candles and potpourri, and other products made with this most beloved of herbs.

According to herbalists, the plant's essential oils are useful for treating burns, headaches, insomnia and depression, to repel insects, and as a general-purpose antiseptic. In medieval times, when personal hygiene was less important or possible than today, people often used highly scented herbs such as lavender as "strews"; stems and flowers of a plant were strewn over floors so that when they were trod upon, their fragrance was released (and hopefully compensated somewhat for less pleasant odours!). Many recipes exist for making home care products, and the flavour of lavender is considered delightful in teas, ices, sweets, and even jellies.

Lavender plants and products used to be difficult to find, at least here in Atlantic Canada. Happily, the elegant plant and its heady fragrance have experienced a significant resurgence in popularity. A trip to any good garden centre will offer the chance to purchase lavender plants of many different cultivars. Products featuring lavender essential oil can be found on pharmacy and department store shelves, not just in speciality shops. Commercial growers use steam distillation to collect the precious essential oils used in these products.

Lavender is an ancient herb, with natural habitat in such diverse locales as Greece, France, Morocco, Egypt and India. It's not known what peoples first discovered the uses of the plant, but Dioscorides, a Greek physician of the first century AD, makes note of lavender in his writings. Interestingly, although we hear the term "English lavender" used by several companies, lavender is not indigenous to England, and probably was brought to that country by the invading Romans.

A member of the Labiatae or mint family of plants, lavender belongs to the genus Lavendula, with over 30 species in six sections now being recognized. The naming of the plants can be confusing, as there are several species names no longer accepted by botanists but still found in use in some locales. For our purposes, there are two sections carrying the hardiest and most commonly found lavenders: Lavendula angustifolia true lavender, sometimes found sold as L. officinalis or L. vera, and Lavendula x intermedia (lavandins), which are hybrids having larger flowers than the true species. Other species such as L. stoechas and L. dentata do not tend to be hardy through Atlantic winters and should only be grown as annuals or brought inside as houseplants as winter approaches.

Numerous cultivars of lavender are available at commercial nurseries throughout our regions, with some of the most common being 'Hidcote', 'Munstead', 'Nana Alba' (a dwarf form with white flowers) and 'Lady'. And like the old song goes, ³Lavender blue, dilly dilly, lavender green....², there actually ARE green forms of lavender. Lavendula viridis have greenish flowers, but I¹ve never been tempted to try growing them, besotted as I am with the assorted shades of blue, purple and rose available. The white varieties also hold little interest for me, although a plant with variegated foliage has proved quite hardy in my garden.

Two particularly good sources of lavender plants are:

Richters of Goodwood Ontario
Phone 905 640-6677

Riverview Herbs of
Maitland, Nova Scotia
Phone 902 261-2274

For a thorough examination of lavender from a botanical and commercial point of view, consult Virginia McNaughton's Lavender; The Grower's Guide (Timber Press, 2000). Let me stress, however, that this book does not dwell on gardening or using lavender, but rather focuses on the plant's classification and cultivar descriptions. For a person who is interested in the plant¹s often confusing classifications and the dizzying number of cultivars, it¹s a fascinating book.

Lavender is not difficult to grow, providing it is given the conditions it prefers. Plants do best in full sun and in soil that drains well, as lavender will languish and die with wet feet. If your soil tends to be heavy with clay, you can add sand and organic matter to loosen it and improve drainage. Don't overfertilize lavender plantings, as this will actually detract from the amount of fragrance the plants produce. Pruning is important to prevent die-out in the centre of the shrub, and should be done in late spring, before much active growth has begun. Most growers recommend cutting the plant back by at least one third when pruning. If you're an enthusiastic and patient gardener, you can prune a lavender plant into a topiary form, but this isn't something I've ever attempted to do.

In cooler climates, such as in Atlantic Canada, lavender is sometimes subject to winterkilling. Again, excellent soil drainage will help to prevent plants from dying from waterlogged roots. The cold and blustery winds that frequently sweep our area can be hard on lavender plants as well, so I recommend mulching them after a hard freeze in late fall or early winter. A light mulch such as hay, straw, or evergreen boughs will help protect the plant and also allows good air circulation, as well as preventing snow from compacting down too hard and breaking the woody plant off at the roots.

There are countless ideas for using lavender in the home, and you're limited only by imagination - or availability of flowers. Of course, the stiff stems with their fragrant heads of tiny flowers lend themselves to being arranged in vases of cutflowers, or in a grouping by themselves. If you want to use lavender flowers as dried decorations or for crafts such as potpourri, sachets, and bath products, it's important to pick and dry them properly. Essential oil concentration is highest early in the day, so cut lavender in early morning, before all the flowers on the stalk are fully opened. For drying, collect bunches of stems together and secure with elastic - stems will shrink as they dry - and hang in a dark, well ventilated place such as an attic or large closet. Lavender's scent tends to last quite well, and if you're making potpourri you can invigorate the fragrance with a few drops of essential oil.

photo courtesy Proven Winners

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