2.15 Lavender

Photo: Lavandula angustifolia 12. Latin name: Lavandula angustifolia and other Lavandula species.
Also see 3.6, Growing herbs from cuttings.

These lavender entries have been compiled by Susan L. Nielsen (snielsen.orednet.org). Nice piece of work; thanks!

(copyright, Susan L. Nielsen, 1995)

"Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green;
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen."
'Lavender's Blue', from _Mother Goose's Melody_ (Anon.), 1781.

2.15.1 Growing Lavender

by Susan L. Nielsen

Among native plants of the Mediterranean, Lavender must surely be one of the most adaptable of these sun and warmth-loving plants. It thrives from its indigenous lands as far north and south as hardy perennials will grow. It is grown commercially in Australia, as well as in the more familiar lavender fields of England and France. It will grow even as far north as Norway, though perhaps not _very_ far north once there.

Lavender is happiest in light, well-drained soils, in a somewhat lean loam. By lean, I mean a soil not too rich in nitrogen; lavender, like many plants, will gladly imbibe the nitrogen, and then send this nourishment into healthy leaf growth. In general, we prefer to cultivate lavender for its blooms (the leaves are useful, but the blooming plant will, after all, have leaves enough for most purposes I can imagine). Drainage is at least as important as soil content. I don't recommend planting lavender in gravel, but gravel would be preferable to a clay bed. A sandy loam is ideal. "Just dirt" is probably fine as long as it will crumble in the hand. Clean wood ash is a helpful addition to the soil.

Lavender likes the sun. Unlike human beings, it is made to flourish under UV rays (after all, ultraviolet and ultralavender aren't _that_ far apart).

So, give it sun, give it drainage, water it sometimes, and enjoy its heady, sweet abundance.

Lavender may be propagated by seed, though I would suspect the ability of some of the cultivars to produce, from seed, plants true to the characteristics of the parent.

It may also be easily propagated from cuttings. This is the way most commercial stock is reproduced. In the spring or fall, take cuttings from new growth. You want small stems, pulled with a "heel" from the larger branch (pull quickly downward from the angle of the stem, and the "cutting" will detach with the desired tissue forming the heel). Dust with rooting hormone if available. Set the cuttings into sand or soil.

Don't, by the way, believe the words on a package of "sterile" soil mix; treat it to half an hour in a _low_ heat oven (about 65 C degrees or 150 F, if you can set it that low). Use a shallow pan so that the soil can heat uniformly; it is very insulating and, if piled up, the inside can still be quite cool when the outside is hot to touch. Make certain it is cooled again before you use it. When you are using packaged soil for rooting or seeding, you will save yourself complications with damping off and other fungal diseases by ritually observing this practice.

Tend the plants gently, and keep them moist, and when they have rooted, (new top growth is a good sign) pot them into larger containers and fertilize them.

In addition, lavenders will layer well in the garden; buried stems will root along their length and can then be dug up, separated from the parent, and replanted on their own.

2.15.2 Harvesting Lavender

by Susan L. Nielsen

Lavender flowers should be harvested just before the blooms open. The flowers will look like fat, purple seeds on a stem. If you miss and must cut them later, be prepared for the flowers to fall off the stems.
For culinary purposes, it may not be so important that you have perfectly preserved stems of lavender, but they probably loose some of their intensity of aroma as they mature on the plant.

All the herbals say that the aromatic powers of herbs are strongest when the plant has not yet opened to full bloom (true of most all the blooming herbs), and to cut herbs "in the morning when the plants are perfectly dry." I have never been able to achieve the match between morning hours and dryness at this pre-bloom season, though I suppose it depends on the dews and the rains where the garden grows. The dryness is probably more important than the morning hour.

Cut the lavender stems as long as you are able. Doubtless some of your harvest will be used for gifts or crafts. The long stems are most lovely. They also increase the possibilities available to you (you cannot make lavender bottles with short stems).

2.15.3 Using/Preserving Lavender

by Susan L. Nielsen

Do not dry your herbs in the sun. "Dry them quickly," say the books, but direct sun will cause them to fade, both in color and in intensity. You can spread them out flat to dry if you have unlimited table space.
Or tie them in bundles and hang them upside down. "In a closet," say the wise authors. Ha-ha. Show me a closet with room for bundles of herbs to hang undamaged. I hang mine from curtain rods, but I have a window onto a vestibule where no sun strikes. Hang them from hooks or nails or thumb tacks. I know it is terribly quaint, but don't leave them there all summer, fall and winter. They will gather dust, and they will lose potency in time. Once they are thoroughly dry, store them someplace more sheltered, though less scenic.

Rosetta Clarkson (in _Herbs and Savory Seeds_, Dover Publications, 1972) reminds us that, "To retain the full flavor and fragrance [of lavender and of other herbs to be used for cooking] you must store the herbs in containers, preferably glass or pottery with tightly fitting covers." Otherwise, "the oils will in time escape." Good advice for all herbs saved, though not too good for long stems. Try wrapping them in tissue paper and keeping them in a carton, drawer or chest. When storing freshly dried herbs in closed containers, you will do well to check them during the first weeks for signs of mildew. Turn them out now and then, spread the herbs loosely, sniff them, touch them, look closely. If all is well, re-pack them.

For culinary use, all experts agree (!) that lavender is strong. Use a light hand.


By Susan L. Nielsen

Beginning with the most simple:

Lavender Tea

About 3 tablespoons fresh flowers (half this amount for dried ones) steeped 3-5 minutes in a pint of water just off the boil. This has a pale straw color but is plenty aromatic. You might try combining the lavender with mint leaves, too.

Lavender Vinegar

Use distilled white vinegar. Flavored vinegars and stronger ones will compete with the herb for your senses. Place "some" (say, a small handful) in a modicum (say, a pint) of vinegar. Let stand 4-6 weeks. Use it as a dressing for fruit salads.

Even simpler: a few lavender leaves, washed, scattered into a garden salad add what the authors of _Joy of Cooking_ (Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker) call a "bitter pungency." In the US recently, "bitter pungency" in the form of radicchio commands a handsome price in the market, so let not this opportunity pass!

Lavender Martini

(I have not myself tried this, but I promise to, soon)
"Make your martini with your favorite proportions. Use a small sprig of lavender as the garnish. The oil of lavender is quickly but subtly released by the alcohol..."
(from _The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery_, Leona Woodring Smith, Harper & Row, 1973).

Lavender Fruit Salad

Choose your favorite seasonal fresh fruits (no canned fruit cocktail here). Peel them as appropriate, reduce to bite-sized pieces. Combine them in a bowl with 10 or so sprigs of fresh lavender (remember: much less for dried). Let it all chill for a couple of hours. Serve it with a good splash of champagne over the top and lavender pretties in the bowl. Another version of this steeps the salad in a quarter cup of Grand Marnier, then follows with the champagne at serving.

Lavender Jelly

(Also from _The Forgotten Art of Flower Cookery_)
2 ¼ cups bottled apple juice [I would assume that this requires a clear juice for a clear jelly]
1 cup lavender flowers
3 ½ cups sugar
½ bottle (4 oz.) liquid pectin

Place apple juice and lavender in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and remove from the heat. Let stand for 15 minutes and strain. Return 2 cups of this juice to the heat, add the sugar, and stirring constantly, bring to a full boil. Stir in the liquid pectin and bring to a rolling boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Remove from the heat, skim off the foam, and pour into jelly glasses with a sprig of jelly in each glass [and seal]. (Makes about 5 medium glasses.)

Lavender Apple Crisp

Add about a tablespoon of fresh (half that if dried) lavender to your favorite apple crisp or deep dish pie recipe.

and, by no means least:

Lavender Ice Cream (from _At Home with Herbs_, Jane Newdick, Storey Communicaltions, 1994, changed a bit)
4 egg yolks
¾ cups sugar
⅔ cup half-and-half [half cream, half milk]
6 fresh lavender flower heads
⅔ cup whipping cream or heavy cream
2 cups of milk

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until light and foaming. Gently heat the half-and-half in a pan with the lavender flowers. Bring to the boil, then strain into the egg yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the stove and cook over very low heat, stirring constantly until it is slightly thickened and will coat the back of a spoon. Do not let it boil. Pour the custard into a bowl, and refrigerate until it is completely cold. Whip the cream just until it forms peaks and fold it into the cold custard. Add remaining 2 cups of milk. Process in an ice cream maker, or freeze in the container in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Serve with thin, crisp cookies.

[O', I do say...]

Now, I know this last is not a culinary item, but I've been very good about leaving out the 4,012 craft uses of lavender I could have mentioned, and I did bring these up earlier, so indulge me:

Lavender bottles

Lavender bottles are a very old little whimsy. You must use freshly cut lavender. Once it has dried, the stems will break as you try to bend them, and your bottles will fall apart before they are made.

Use a goodly bunch of lavender, 15 to 20 stems with flower heads. Also have on hand some strong thread.

Neatly bunch the lavender and tie the stems together just below the flower heads. Wrap the thread several times around the stems to make a strong band. Trim the thread ends.

One stem at a time, bend the stems over the flower heads. Work around the bundle, carefully. The stems will form a kind of cage over the flowers. As the lavender dries, the stems will shrink some, and the "bottle" will be more open.

When all the stems are bent over the flowers, tie them again at the point just below the flower heads. Your earlier tie will be obscured. Tie the bottoms of the stems together, too. Tie tightly, because the stems _will_ shrink. You can tie narrow ribbons over the strings to make things prettier.

2.15.4 Which Lavender do you have?

By Susan L. Nielsen

"Oh, call it by some better name..." -- Thomas Moore

The _Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology_ (C.T. Onions) considers that the English word "lavender" derives, through a painful series of transcriptions, from the Latin *lavare* (to lave, to wash), though Professor Onions comments that, if this is so, "the sense-development is obscure." Perhaps he was unfamiliar with lavender-scented baths.

*Lavandula* varieties are many, and the manifold literature does not come to any tidy agreement on the number of lavender species. At last I went to _Hortus Third_ to settle the matter. While this is specifically a North American reference, I do not believe there can be too many examples of this herb not now grown somewhere in N. America.

The following is a fairly tedious list but, because of the large number of names under which lavender is sold, I have listed the subspecies and cultivar names (forgive me, but I have omitted the convention of italic markers for genus, species and variety names; cultivars are in single quotes). The list is somewhat abbreviated. All names not listed are judged, "without botanical standing.":

  • L. angustifolia: ENGLISH L. (synonyms = L. delphinensis, L. officinalis, L. spica, L. pyrenaica, L. vera).
    Cultivars = 'Alba', 'Atropurpurea', 'Compacta', 'Dutch', 'Fragrance', 'Hidcote', 'Munstead', 'Nana', 'Rosea', 'Twickel Purple', 'Waltham'.
  • L. dentata: FRENCH L. (also, previously, sometimes referred to as L. delphinensis). var. candicans.
  • L. lanata: (plants offered under this name may sometimes be angustifolia).
  • L. latifolia
  • L. multifida: (synonym = canariensis)
  • L. pinnata: var. Buchii.
  • L. stoechas: SPANISH L., FRENCH L. (synonym = pedunculata).

Some folklore: Three of the above names are interesting in history.

  • *L. Spica* (spike Lavender [who says Latin is tough?]), shows in its name the earlier use of the term "Spike" to refer to lavender (as, Culpeper's Oil of Spike). The Greeks called this plant, 'Nardus.' Bible readers will here recognize the name Spikenard: "While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof." said the dark, passionate lover in "The Song of Solomon" (1:12), and "Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon..." (4:13,14).
  • *L. vera* (English Lavender), is also called "true" Lavender, and *L. stoechas*, French Lavender. Obviously there is room for a cross-Channel rivalry here. The English Lavender claims to possess the finest, true lavender scent: *vera*. In fact, it is the basis of the huge commercial market in lavender. French Lavender, on the other hand, (according to dear Mrs. Grieve, _A Modern Herbal_, 1931, reproduced by Dover Publications, 1971), is "probably the lavender so extensively used in classical times by the Romans and Libyans as a perfume for the bath." This is a fairly distinguished citation, which endures despite the fact that its aroma is judged by some to be "musty," by others "musky" (a distinction one might have thought more clear), and, by the more discriminating, "like a cross between lavender and rosemary."

So, among these worthies, the question remains, which do you have? Or even, which do you want to have?

The above list should help if you have purchased lavender with a nursery tag in the pot and are unsure where you stand among the synonyms.

If you have no lavenders, or wish to increase your holdings, and are looking for guidance, you might consider the attributes you most seek. If you are very involved in processing, and want to extract oils, for instance, you might choose the larger-leaved Spike varieties for a greater yield of oil. Be forewarned, however, that oil extraction requires _enormous_ quantities of material for a start.

If you live in a harsh, cold-winter area, the hardier L. angustifolia (vera) might be your best choice.

For deck or terrace edging, parterres, or walkway borders try the smaller varieties: Hidcote, or Munstead, for example.

If your lavender has wooly white foliage, in a mound of about 12" height, and blooms late in the season on towering stems topping at 3' or so, you probably have L. lanata. Its scent will be similar to that of L. angustifolia.

The L. pinnata and L. multifida cultivars have greyish, ferny foliage.

L. dentata has little "teeth" along the edges of the leaves. Its scent is said to suffer from the same shortcomings as that of the Stoechas lavenders.

For historical interest, or from the standpoint of a collector, of course, one cannot have too many lavenders. And all of them are equal candidates for inclusion in the garden.

"...we shall find a cleanly room, lavender in the windows,
and twenty ballads stuck about the wall."
-- Izaak Walton, _The Compleat Angler_, 1653-1655.