I have always loved lavender's fragrance, its colorful prolific blooms, its delightful oils, and soaps. I recently had the pleasure of taking a Stanislaus County UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener workshop on lavender. It was led by fellow Master Gardener Heidi Aufdermaur, and I learned so much more about lavender.
A member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, lavender (Lavandula spp.) is an ancient herb. It is believed to have likely originated from Greece and is indigenous to the Mediterranean area, including Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Cape Verde. Long coveted for its fragrance, calming presence, and healing properties, lavender use has been documented for over 2500 years in many cultures around the world. The word “lavender” is derived from the Latin verb ‘lavare' which means “to wash.” In Medieval and Renaissance France, women who took in washing were known as ‘lavenders.'
- The Egyptians used lavender for cosmetics, medicines, and embalming mummies.
- Lavender was used in perfumes by the ancient Aztecs, in addition to mummification.
- In the 17th century, Arabs domesticated the plant and brought it to Spain. The Spanish brought the plant to North America.
- The ancient Greeks used lavender to fight off insomnia and back aches.
- Romans used lavender oil for cooking, bathing, scenting the air, and in soaps.
- In the 17th century lavender was used as a remedy for the Great Plague in London.
- Queen Elizabeth I of England required lavender to be served at the royal table and fresh lavender flowers throughout her residence. She also used lavender tea for treatment of severe migraine headaches.
- Queen Victoria took an interest in lavender in the 19th century and the English variety became popular.
- History states that the Shakers were the first to grow lavender commercially in the Americas.
- Today lavender is cultivated commercially in France, England, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Canada.
Growing and Caring for Lavender
Lavender is an evergreen, herbaceous, semi-woody perennial with silvery-green square-shaped foliage whose spike-shaped flowers come in many hues of purple, pink, and white. While lavender grows well in California Central Valley's Mediterranean climate, and will tolerate some neglect, they do have some basic requirements:
- Full sun.
- Thrives in poor soils with little to no fertilizer providing there is good drainage.
- Since lavender is difficult to grow from seed, it is best to plant a young plant in the spring, after the threat of frost has passed when the soil has warmed up to at least 60°F.
- If planting in summer, make sure you water regularly to keep the soil moist.
- If planting in fall, choose a larger, more established plant to ensure their survival over the winter.
- They do not like “wet feet.” If use organic mulch, keep it away from the crown to prevent excess moisture. A better choice is inorganic mulch such as pea gravel, decomposed granite, or sand.
Caring for lavender:
- Water regularly until the plants are established, after which they need little water. Yellowing leaves is often a sign of over-watering.
- Prune during the fall months.
- To keep plants neat and compact, shear back by one-third to one-half every year immediately after bloom.
- The flowering stems can be harvested while in bloom or snipped off after the flowers fade. Consider letting some of the blooms go to seed for small seed-eating birds such as finches and sparrows.
Varieties of Lavender
The three most common varieties of lavender are English, French, and Spanish:
- English lavender (Lavandula angustifola) is also known as True or Common lavender. Fragrant-rich, coming in both dark and light purple colors, it is a favorite culinary lavender, adding a sweet floral flavor to beverages, desserts, savory dishes, and meat.
o Cultivars include: ‘Hidcote', ‘Lady', ‘Campacta', ‘Ellegance', ‘Goodwin Creek', ‘Jean Davis', and ‘Pastor's Pride'.
- French lavender (Lavandula dentata) is related to English lavender, but French lavender is larger, has a lighter scent and is less frost tolerant. It has a long bloom time, from spring through summer. It is used as cut flowers and potpourri.
o Cultivars include ‘Allwood', ‘Lambikins', ‘Linda Logon', ‘Ploughman's Blue' and ‘Pure Harmony'.
- Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), otherwise known as Butterfly lavender, are frost tolerant, low bushes with long stems, and distinct dark purple heads that have “rabbit ears.” Due to their smaller size, they grow well in pots. Highly aromatic, they are a magnet for bees and butterflies. Used in aromatherapy, soaps, cooking, in tinctures and oils, as well as cocktails!
o Cultivars include ‘Anouk', ‘Ballerina', ‘Munstead', ‘Otto Quast', ‘Papillon', ‘Regal Splendor', and ‘With Love'.
The most popular use of lavender today is in cosmetics and fragrances, including making bouquets, wreaths or wands, small sachets, eye pillows, potpourri, soaps, perfumes, facial and body oils. Culinary uses include herbal teas, cookies, lavender ice cream, as a flavorful addition to wine, and even as a spice rub for beef and lamb.
If you enjoy doing crafts, make a lavender wand, which makes a great gift.
Here are a couple how-to-do links:
For creative cooks, there are many lavender recipes from sweet to savory. An excellent book is The Lavender Cookbook by Sharon Shipley.
More Love for Lavender
Visit the local Pageo Lavender Farm in Turlock (http://pageolavenderfarm.com/) to see its fields of lavender and visit its shop with many lavender products.
Learning more about lavender has increased my appreciation for this beautiful, versatile plant. I made a lavender wand which lightly perfumes my closet, have a lavender eye-pillow for when I do the savasana pose in yoga (very relaxing!). I look forward to baking lavender shortbread, exploring other uses of lavender, and increasing the diversity of lavender plants in my garden!
If you do not already have lavender in your garden, consider planting some. Along with their lovely flowers and aroma, ease of care, they also attract bees, butterflies, and birds. You will love them!
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to fellow UCCE Master Garden Heidi Aufdermaur for sharing her love and knowledge of lavender!
- Lavenders for California Gardens: https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8135.pdf
- Sunset Western Garden Book
- The Timeless Allure of Lavender by local author Cynthia Tanis (Kindle Edition on Amazon)
- How to plant, grow and care for lavender: www.almanac.com
- Lavandula: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavandula
Denise Godbout-Avant has been a UCCE Master Gardener with Stanislaus County since 2020