By Frédérique Lavoipierre
Balanced on her shoulder, the young woman carried the largest bunch of lavender I had ever seen. Striding through the Gare de Lyon in Paris, she cut a swath of clean, fresh Provençal air through the heavy diesel scent of the train station, and I was carried right back to the south of France.
Next to vanilla, no scent evokes more memories than lavender. Cliché, but true, I cannot smell lavender without recalling grandmère and the fragrant scent of her skin as she enveloped me in a hug. For many of us, lavender has an association with our grandmothers, yet the pungent aroma is timeless, and thoroughly contemporary.
Lavenders are a diverse group of plants, and different varieties serve different purposes. Some lavenders are wonderful for long-stemmed bouquets, while others are better suited for landscape use. Many lavenders are perfect for crafts such as lavender wands, potpourri, and soap making. A few varieties of lavender excel for culinary use.
Lavender can be used in a variety of sweets, as well as roasted or grilled meats. Herbes de Provence, a traditional mixture of culinary herbs, often contains small amounts of lavender. Lavender authority Robert Kourik tells us that English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the best lavender for sweets. Kourik's favorite lavenders for savory dishes are the Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) and a green-flowered form, L. viridis, which has unusual green flowers. Recipes using lavender are more readily available than they once were, and if you're so inclined you can add the aromatic herb to many dishes.
In the landscape, lavender provides us with easy-to-grow shrubs, while supplying armfuls of flowers. Drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, perennial, evergreen, well adapted to our Mediterranean climate, and often even reblooming if cut back after the first flowering
what more can we ask from a landscape plant? A 4" pot will astonish you with its rapid growth. Planted in spring or fall, it will provide an abundant display the following spring, and for many years thereafter. Even a single plant of "Provence" lavender can provide an enormous bouquet to dry for winter pleasure.
Fifteen species of lavender provide us with hundreds of cultivars to choose from. From a diminutive 8" to a shrubby 4' tall, with foliage colors ranging through ghostly white, chartreuse and soft green, and every nuance of grey, and with blossoms in shades of purple, mauve, violet, pale pink, and white, lavender offers a wide variety of choices. The usually stiff foliage can be soft and fern-like and a few varieties are even scentless.
English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, is also known as L. officinalis, L. spica, and L. vera. Originally found in the French Alps, it formed the basis of the lavender oil industry in England during the 18th century. This is the sweetest smelling and flavored of all the lavenders, ideal for culinary purposes and wonderful in potpourri. The most refined oils are make from the English lavenders. Choice varieties include "Hidcote," "Munstead," and "Martha Roedrick," as well as white and pink-flowered forms.
Spanish lavender, Lavandula stoechas, is also known as French or Italian lavender. This is the one I always think of as "butterfly lavender" because of the "wings" formed at the top of the flower heads by the large bracts. This species is a standout in fresh flower arrangements and ideal for potpourri. I love this plant in the landscape, as do the butterflies. The variety "Alba" is a spectacular plant for the moonlit garden. Bright purple-flowered varieties to plant include "Otto Quast" and "Atlas." Recognize French Lavender (we begin to see the usefulness of Latin names!), L. dentata, by its toothed leaves. A bright green, as well as a grey form, is available. The pale violet flowered heads also have bracts at the top of the spikes, but these are folded up and are not as conspicuous as the bracts of Spanish lavender. It is not strongly scented, but it blooms continuously, and is useful in the landscape. "Sweet Lavender," L. heterophylla, a cross of L. dentata and L. latifolia, has long been a favorite of mine, for its delightful scent and abundant, generous bloom. No matter which lavenders I plant, I always include one or two plants of "Sweet Lavender."
Two varieties of lavender are found wild in France, L. angustifolia (that's right, English lavender
are you confused yet?) and L. latifolia. When these were found to produce natural hybrids known as lavandins, plant breeders soon created many new hybrids, and these are now the backbone of the French lavender industry. The varieties of lavandin produce abundant, sweet-smelling oils, and graceful, long-stemmed flowers. "Grosso" and "Provence" are the most commonly planted varieties, but look also for "Fred Boutin," with its striking powdery white foliage. Lavandins are the lavender of choice for long-stemmed dry bunches and for making lavender wands.
For a taste of Provence, visit Matanzas Creek winery where they have 4,000 "Provence" and "Grosso" plants growing. Call the winery to find out about the lavender events taking place in the early summer. June is the best time to see the lavender in bloom, but even after harvest, the rows of neatly trimmed grey-foliaged plants are attractive. The winery has numerous beautifully packaged lavender products for sale, and the inspiring landscape
designed by Digging Dog Nursery is always worth a visit.
My favorite local source for lavender plants
over twenty varieties of sturdy, well-grown plants in 4" pots, including the hard-to-find L. viridis is Emerisa Gardens on Irwin Lane in Santa Rosa (tel. 525-9644). An outstanding reference is Robert Kourik's book The Lavender Garden. Impeccably researched, this book can guide you in your lavender choices, whether you want to cook, landscape, craft, or collect bouquets from the garden. Cultural directions are especially applicable to our area, as the author lives in Sonoma County. Call Emerisa Gardens to reserve a spot for Kourik's popular annual spring presentation on lavenders.