Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2004
Regional Report

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At this stage of flower development, lavender has the highest oil concentration and the strongest fragrance -- perfect for harvesting.

Purple Haze Craze

It's understandable why so many gardeners are passionate about lavender, not only for the beauty it brings to our gardens, but because of its many uses: dried lavender bouquets and wreaths; potpourri; oil for aromatherapy products, colognes, lotions, soaps, and culinary uses; and medicinal uses such as for insect bites and stings. There is a maxim known to many regarding the use of lavender oil: When in doubt use lavender because it is the safest of all oils.

Historical Uses
There are few other herbs in our gardens that are as versatile as lavender. Lavender derives its name from the Latin "lavare," meaning "to wash." The fresh, clean scent of lavender suggests tranquility and purity.

This ancient herb native to the Mediterranean region was a favorite bathwater additive of the Greeks and Romans. It was also used as an insect repellent and was distilled for liberal use in masking household and street smells. The early apothecaries used the whole plant to make potions and concoctions as a cure all for every kind of malady.

Lavender is a member of the same family as sage, basil, thyme, and rosemary. All members of this family have square stems and are aromatic.

As with the rest of the family, lavender is used in recipes, but only in sweet dishes, such as custards, meringues, scones, cookies, and truffles. A fine sprinkling of English lavender buds over iced cookies or combined with the sugar to make them adds a delicate and unusual natural aroma to all of the above mentioned sweets.

While there are a number of lavenders, the most well known are Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas); French lavender (L. dentate); English lavender (L. angustifolia), known for its superb oil quality; and lavandin (L. X intermedia), prized for its long-stemmed flowers.

Growing Lavender
The versatility of this plant is proven by the fact that it grows wild in all the arid climates of the world and has adapted very well to cold and clammy climates as well.

The fact that it is indigenous to desert areas and around the Mediterranean indicates the type of soil and conditions in which it grows best and which you will want to emulate. Desert soil is light, well drained, and usually very dry. It is not generally very rich in nutrients.

If your soil is heavy and slow to drain, like mine, you can create a hospitable place for your lavender by amending your beds with plenty of organic matter, such as aged compost or manure, which will promote soil aeration and help keep the plants from developing root rot. Fast-draining raised beds are another workable solution. If your soil has a low pH, add lime or dolomite to sweeten it.

Feed the plants with an organic fertilizer only when planting. You may want to cut off any of the first flower stalks to divert the plants' energy into producing sturdy roots, stems, and foliage instead of flowers.

Encourage lavender to branch by pinching off the tips of any strong leaders or stems. Sun is an absolute necessity, and lavender will flower profusely only if it receives eight hours of sunshine a day.

Some varieties have unusual flower heads, while others stand out in gardens for the color and shape of their foliage. Lavender flowers may be light purple, dark purple, pink, or white. If plants are pruned back to the base of the flower stalks after flowering they will bloom again before winter sets in.

To harvest lavender for drying, it's best to choose stems that only have two or three opened flower buds; the rest will open during the drying process. Be sure to cut your lavender stems just after the dew has evaporated. If you wait until later in the day, the heat will dispel the essential oils in the stems. The essential oil is what gives the lavender its scent.

Preserving lavender can help you recall those lazy, hazy days of summer all through the winter months.

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