Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
One of my favorite herbs is lavender. It was one of the first herbs I planted when I started my own little garden in the corner of my family's vegetable garden. It was also one of the first herbs I planted at my own home.
My fist attempts at growing lavender were a bit disappointing-- the plants only lasted a year or two at most, and I could never figure out why they weren't hardier. The plants at my home today are faring a lot better. They have grown into small woody shrubs! I think the difference lies in the environment preferred by lavender. It all boils down to reproducing conditions like that of lavender's native land.
Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region south to tropical Africa and east to parts of India. Lavender's genus name, Lavandula, is from the Latin 'lavare' meaning 'to wash'. This name refers to using lavender to freshen everything from bath water to wash water for laundry or household cleaning.
There are 39 different species in the genus Lavandula. These plants have many growth patterns and forms-- from annuals, to perennials, to small shrubs. Most prefer sunny, hot and dry conditions with well-drained soil. Lavender prefers soil pH to be in the range of 5.8-8.3.
Heavy clay soil is a death sentence for lavender. I believe this was why my plants always seemed to be doomed in the garden at my parent's house. Although it was a sunny location and the garden soil there was rich and black, it also had a high clay content which held too much moisture in. The soil where the lavender is planted at my house has less clay and so doesn't hold too much moisture on the plants' roots. It also receives full sun most of the day.
When purchasing lavender for the garden, pay attention to the Latin name listed, as not all lavenders are hardy in central Illinois. English Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia is the most commonly grown hardy lavender in our area. Synonyms for this species are: L. vera, L. latifola, L. officinalis, L. spica, and L. delphinensis.
There are many varied cultivars of English lavender, with flower colors ranging from to the typical lavender blue to darker blue, pink, and white. Look for the following cultivars:
The lavender-blue flowered cultivar 'Lady' was an All-American Selection winner in 1994. Its claim to fame is quick and reliable germination from seed, often flowering in its first year. Most lavender seed germinates slowly if at all, and often is not true to the parent plant, as lavender readily cross-pollinates. Most English lavenders are propagated by cuttings. So 'Lady' truly is unique among these lavenders.
Lavender has been used for centuries for everything from perfume to a disinfectant. The flowers are the most concentrated source of the essential oils, though the leaves contain it as well. Scientists have shown the oils in lavender to have some antimicrobial properties, but warn that people with allergies may react to lavender.
One of my favorite ways to use lavender is as a sachet in closets and drawers. Lavender oil is a natural repellent for insects. You can sew packets or pouches filled with the dried flowers, or create your own lavender "wand" from flowers and their stems.
Create your own lavender wand by picking a small bouquet of lavender flowers, leaving stems long. Use an even number of flowers. Tie the end of about two yards of thin ribbon at the base of the flowers.
Turn the bouquet upside-down and carefully bend the stems downward. Weave the ribbon under and over each stem, going around and around, capturing the flowers inside. When you reach the end of the flowers, wind the ribbon around the stems to secure and tie a bow. After the wand completely dries in a couple of weeks, you may need to carefully tighten up the weaving and re-tie the bow. Use these wands in drawers or closets to freshen clothes and repel moths.
Another way to use lavender is cooking. Lavender may be added to common foods like sugar cookies and lemonade to give a refreshing flowery flavor. My husband used herbs from our garden last year to create his own "Herbs de Provence", an herb mix originating in Provence, France which contains savory, fennel, basil, thyme and lavender flowers. It adds great flavor to fish and other meats.
If you cook with lavender, just be sure to purchase dried lavender flowers labeled as safe for consumption, or use your own flowers that you have not sprayed with any garden chemicals.