Plant Profile: Lavender

A bee foraging on potted lavender in my garden
Bees land on lavender with a satisfying 'fwing' - taken on my sunny patio next to my garden bench in 2014. 

I love lavender. It thrives on neglect, is loved by bees and the merest brush against it releases a gorgeous scent. What's not to like?

I confess it's taken a while for me to learn to look after it properly. I had to grub out a wonderful 20 foot long lavender hedge in the front side garden after the trees on the public land next door shaded it out.

Then the selection I grew at the front of one of the sunny terraced beds in the back garden became too woody and ugly because I didn't prune it properly.

That was before I learnt a top tip from Jekka McVicar - prune them back to the merest hint of the current year's growth in August (L. stoechas) or September for the more hardy varieties (e.g. L. angustifolia). That keeps the plants nice and compact and the timing allows the plants to recover from their haircut well in time for anything winter may throw at them.

Time for another confession: I find this quite hard to do when they're still flowering quite freely. I hate stopping the bees from having their fun!

According to Jekka, that pruning can make the difference between lavender lasting for a few years and staying good for decades. I haven't got further than 10 years yet, but the lavender I've had in my patio pots for several year is still looking good.

I'm about to plant some more as I much prefer the deep purple of L. 'Hidcote' to that of the pictured L. 'Munstead', which to my eye looks a bit wishy washy in comparison.

Do you grow lavender? Which varieties do you prefer?

Cultivation Notes

L. 'Sawyers' at Cotswold Lavender
Lavender hails from the Mediterranean, so prefers a warm, sunny position and thrives in an alkaline soil like mine. It thrives on poorer soils too, which makes it great for new build properties where the builders haven't been that generous with their topsoil, or at tidying up after themselves.

Lavender's also good for pots, especially if - like me - you're not that good at feeding them. As it's drought tolerant, you can afford to be forgetful with watering too.

If you have an acid soil, this interesting article published by Plant
Newly potted lavender (right)
Heritage suggests L. stoechas subsp. stoechas varieties are the ones for you to try. However, bear in mind L. stoechas (aka French lavender) isn't as hardy as L. angustifolia (English lavender) or L. x intermedia varieties. NAH and I also think the medicinal quality of L. stoechas's scent isn't quite as nice as English lavender.

The main cultivation problem is root rot, often seen if grown in heavy or waterlogged soils. The recent onslaught of rosemary beetle in the UK is the main pest threat.

Medicinal and culinary uses

Lavender is one of the most useful essential oils. Rene Gattefosse - the father of aromatherapy - was the first known user of lavender essential oil to treat burns when he plunged his burnt arm into a vat of the oil in his laboratory. He noted the burn healed quickly without scarring. 

Other uses include herb pillows to help with insomnia or anxiety; the relief of headaches and muscle cramps; and the treatment of various skin irritations, including insect bites. According to Plants for a Future, it also has antiseptic properties, and L. angustifolia is the most useful species.

I've tried lavender shortbread, lavender cake and lavender ice cream at various lavender haunts, all were very good. Epicurious has the best lavender recipe selection I've found so far, including some savoury ones. Lavender sugar and lavender salt are used frequently to add a hint of lavender to recipes.

Further Reading

Latin without tears

It's ironic L. angustofolia is called 'English lavender', even though it's not native to this country. It's not clear when it was introduced; possibly by the Romans or via the monasteries in the middle ages, who grew it for its healing properties. Recorded usage in this country dates back to the 1200s.

According to Wikipedia, there are 39 known lavender species. In addition to my favourite L. angustofolia, I've grown examples from L. stoechas, L. x intermedia, L. dentata, L. pedunculata, and L. lanata.

The genus name Lavandula, is derived from the Latin verb 'lavare', which means to wash. Lavender has been used as a scented rinse for washing for centuries.
  • angustifolia (English lavender) - from the Latin angustus meaning narrow, and folium for leaf
  • dentata (French lavender*) - from the Latin for bite or toothmark, which describes the appearance of this lavender's leaves
  • intermedia - from the Latin for among the middle. L. x intermedia is a cross between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia - these can cross breed when grown near to each other
  • lanata (woolly lavender) - from the Latin for woolly, wool-like, or covered in wool
  • latifolia (broad leaved, spike or Portuguese lavender) - derived from the Latin for broadleaf
  • pedunculata (French*, butterfly or papillon lavender) - from the Latin for slender stalked. It's sometimes shown as a subspecies of L. stoechas, or as a species in its own right (my edition of the RHS Plant Finder lists the subspecies under stoechas and refers it to the species entry)
  • stoechas (French lavender*) - from the ancient Greek name for a group of islands off the Marseilles coast, where this lavender was abundant
I've not found these species to be hardy in my garden, except for L. angustifolia and L. x intermedia.

* = three lavender species with the same common name, which look different from each other, especially the L. dentata. This is a great argument in favour of the use of botanical Latin - see also Lou's Forget Me Not blog for a great article on why botanical Latin is important.

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  1. I love lavender too and I don't think you can beat 'Hidcote'. Our local cafe does Earl Grey tea with lavender and it is a combination fit for the gods!

    1. Sadly I'm allergic to tea Joanna, otherwise I'd add that to the list of lavender goodies for me to try. Enjoy an extra cuppa on my behalf :)

    2. rooibos?
      Or honeybush tea then?

  2. I prefer the dark purple too. I have lavender hedges around some of the fruit beds on he plot and have just clipped mine back. My problem is grass is now growing amongst it.

    1. I used to have a lavender hedge on the allotment and I had the same problem... coupled with the fact it was on the wettest part of the allotment. You'd think knowing it's a Mediterranean plant would mean I'd get its planting right first time, but not me!

  3. I like the deep purple as well and think angustifolia varieties have the best scent but it is L. x intermedia Vera I grow. I seem to remember reading that in a trial bees visited Vera more than other varieties. She lives in a pot quite happily and never seems to go in a huff if she doesn't get the best of attention.

    1. That's interesting Sheena. I must look out for that cultivar as Vera was my mother-in-law's name. It would be good to plant some in her memory.

  4. I've got a handful each of blue and white lavenders, the latter being a dwarf variety. The blue ones certainly attract butterflies, which is my reason for having them on the plot.

    1. That's interesting Flighty, I rarely see butterflies on mine as they're usually busy on other flowers in the garden.


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