“Here’s your sweet lavender, sixteen sprigs a penny, that you’ll find my ladies will smell as sweet as any.”~ Lavender seller’s cry
Have you ever sat in a field of lavender in full bloom on a warm day? It’s literally a meditation – listen as hundreds of bees work the lavender flowers, humming hypnotically. There’s no experience like it, and I totally recommend it.
Along with the rose, no flower epitomizes the Victorian era like lavender. Simply say its name and lavender’s fresh, sweet, slightly astringent scent is instantly conjured up.
And it’s not used only by our grandmothers anymore. The increasing popularity of aromatherapy and essential oils has made lavender a star for its calming, supportive properties.
This lovely herb is queen of the garden in June, which is the month we moved into our Okanagan home. I was ecstatic to see an entire lavender hedge in my new front garden, just getting ready to come into bloom. The Okanagan’s semi-arid climate allows lavender to grow prolifically, and it seeds itself with abandon all over my yard, which makes me feel equal measures of gratitude and frustration as I try to weed the tiny bushlings out.
Lavender’s name comes from the Latin word “lavare” which means “to wash” because centuries ago (and even now) a popular way of drying clothes was to spread them across lavender bushes, where they would absorb the distinctive scent.
The Lavender Story
This ancient garden plant has been in use for at least 2500 years, and originated in the Mediterranean and India. It was used extensively by the Romans, who brought it to northern Europe. It was thought to give protection against diseases like cholera and the bubonic plague
It was popular in medieval times as a low hedge or in a knot garden. Lavender could be found in virtually every garden from at least the sixteenth century, as its essential oils were valuable for perfumery and medicine.
Lavender arrived in North America by the seventeenth century, and it has been a favourite of gardeners here ever since.
“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”~ author Alice Walker
How to Grow Lavender
Lavender is a perennial, low-growing woody shrub. Currently there are 47 different species of lavender with over 450 varieties so far, and more being developed all the time.
There are three main types of lavender: Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender), Lavandula x intermedia (Lavandin), and Lavandula stoechas (Spanish Lavender). The first two types (especially English lavender) are fairly hardy in the Northern Hemisphere, withstanding temperatures down to Zone 5. Lavandula stoechas, with its distinctive and flamboyant purple “bunny ears”, will only occasionally overwinter in areas as cool as Zone 7 or 8 in my experience. I sometimes grow it in a container as an annual in my Zone 5 garden because I can’t resist its flirty flowers.
Go deeper on lavender species in this article from my friends at the Okanagan Lavender & Herb Farm.
Plant bushes in full sun in average soil amended with sand, gravel and/or crushed oyster shell, which will add alkalinity. Go ahead and site it in the hottest spot in your yard – lavender can handle it!
Ideally you should prune twice a year – in early spring to remove winter-killed branches. Then shear back after flowering in order to remove dead flower spikes, shape the bush, stimulate growth (you may get a second flowering) and keep it from getting leggy. Check out this article by Get Busy Gardening for excellent photos and instructions on how to prune lavender.
Something I’ve learned recently is that lavender can regenerate itself from the woody base of the plant. I had always been told that lavender will not grow from the old woody branches. Entire sections of some of my mature lavender bushes died this past winter, which had temps down to -24C. I watched them carefully, letting the bushes leaf out a bit before I began to prune out the dead branches. It was then that I noticed many tender green shoots coming up from the base of the bushes. The new growth is very healthy and already covered in flower buds! Eventually I’ll cut out the older branches and be left with plants that are just like new.
How to Use Lavender
Lavender has had a multitude of uses over the centuries. Its medicinal uses are many, including for headaches, anxiety and depression, skin issues and much more. Lavender essential oil was even used during World War I before the advent of antibiotics to help heal wounded and burned soldiers. Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be used undiluted on the skin, but sparingly.
I have found lavender oil to be very useful during mosquito season. You know the drill: you go to bed, turn off the light, put your head on the pillow, then you hear it—the annoying hum of hovering mosquitoes just waiting to feast on your body. I keep lavender oil by my bed, and place a few dots of it on exposed skin. I can actually hear them retreat, buzzing angrily farther above me, because they hate the smell. I also dab a little on an itchy bug bite and soon the itch is gone.
An old use for fresh lavender stems is to make lavender wands. They make a cute gift, and can be used to scent your drawers and keep moths out of your clothes. When I worked at Okanagan Lavender & Herb Farm, I learned how to make lavender wands. Enjoy their video on how to make your own lavender wands.
Lavender is one of the few plants that has been researched extensively for its health benefits. This article from Healthline has lots of good information on proven benefits of using lavender for physical and mental health.
Lavender can also be used in cooking and baking. English lavender is best for this, and ensure you are using lavender that hasn’t been sprayed. Do not use purchased lavender intended for crafting. My favourite use is in scones and shortbread. Try this recipe for lavender shortbread—perfect with a cup of tea any time of the year. Tip: Add some grated lemon peel for extra summery flavour.
PLEASE NOTE: I am not a doctor and this information is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your physician or healthcare provider before using lavender or any essential oil medicinally.
Heirloom Lavender Cultivars to Grow
‘Munstead’ (Lavendula angustifolia) – Introduced in 1916. ‘Munstead’ was a favourite cultivar of famed gardener, writer and artist Gertrude Jekyll. It bears the name of her English home Munstead Wood. ‘Munstead’ can be grown from seed or plant, and is compact and highly fragrant. Very easy to find in any nursery.
NOTE: I will update this section as I continue to research lavender cultivar introduction dates – there is very little info available.