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What is a Lavender?

What is a Lavender? | Copyright GreenPlantSwap Ltd

Lavender is one of the most enduring, best-loved and well-known of our cottage plants - everyone has, at some point, had a low hedge of Lavender bordering a path, or has had an elderly relative force some Lavender bags on them, “to make your drawers smell nice”.

There are over 40 cultivars of Lavender in our Plant Finder, as they are a very popular plant, but they generally fall into one of five main species, the hardiest of which is Lavandula angustifolia (angustifolia means narrow-leaved) which is the classic English lavender: it used to be called L. officinalis, which indicates to us that it is the plant used by Medieval herbalists.

Lavandula latifolia is sometimes called Dutch lavender, and has a scent with camphor overtones, along with leaves that are somewhat broader than most other Lavenders: it has been crossed with L. angustifolia to create L. x intermedia, which is said to produce essential oils with a sharper fragrance than the original L. angustifolia, but still retaining the sweetness.

L. dentata is very similar to L angustifolia but, unusually for Lavender, has leaves with toothed edges: this is easy to remember, just think of dentists and what they do!

Lavandula stoechas is sometimes called French or Spanish lavender, and sometimes called Bunny-Ear or Mouse-Ear lavender, for the simple and obvious reason that the flowers are packed into a dense spike, with leafy extensions which do look rather like ears. Although very pretty, very popular and early flowering, these Lavenders are not truly hardy, so they are best grown in pots so that they can be brought under cover for the winter.

The botanical name for Lavender is Lavandula and it is derived from the Latin word "lavare," which means "to wash". An extract of Lavender was used for bathing rituals in Roman times, and the dried flowers were used to perfume freshly washed clothes, so it has been linked with cleanliness and well-being for a long time.

The name took on a new lease of life in both England and Holland in the 16th-17th centuries when the rise of the wool industry led to the creation of an occupational name for a washerman or launderer: in Old French or Middle Dutch the name Lavendier was applied, and anglicised to Lavender. This name came from the Late Latin “lavandarius”, which was another derivative of lavanda ‘washing’, or ‘things to be washed’. The term was applied especially to a worker who washed the raw wool or rinsed the cloth after fulling, and the name lives on as a surname to this day - we all remember Private Pike from Dad's Army, who was played by the actor Ian Lavender.

What is Lavender used for?
The scent of Lavender has been used for centuries to add a fragrance to bedding, and in Roman times it was thought that adding the flowers to bath water would improve the skin.

Now we have a full range of cosmetics, soaps, hand wash, shower gel, and so on, and in fact there is a thriving English lavender industry, supplying essential oils for these products.

Although Lavender is very much a Mediterranean plant, our English climate is surprisingly suitable: the requirements for good flower production are full sun, but not too much summer heat: low humidity, and a cold winter is also necessary to produce the best flower heads. We may well grumble about the English weather, but it produces just the right conditions for good Lavender growing.

As well as for scent, Lavender is now a sought-after ingredient in aromatherapy and herbal medicine, where it is used for both its antiseptic and calming properties, and it is even being used in cooking, as a flavouring for cakes and desserts.

The Lavender in popular culture
This is another participant in the Victorian plant-name explosion, but originally, it was a boys' name! However, it quickly became established (if not massively popular) as a girls' name, and remained in occasional use until the 1980s, when author Roald Dahl created a little girl called Lavender as a friend for his book's main character, Matilda. This brought the name into the limelight, and it was then used in a Harry Potter book, as Ron Weasley's rather wishy-washy girlfriend. However, it remains only an occasional girls' name, probably partly due to the lack of charisma of the two characters, and partly due to it being a difficult name to shorten - who would want their little girl to be addressed by her friends as Lav?

How do you know it's a Lavender?
Lavandula are short-lived perennial or shrubby plants, low-growing, and mostly more or less evergreen. Most of them have silvery-grey leaves, which are densely covered in tiny hairs - you will need a hand-lens to see them - and it is these hairs which contain the essential oils.

The flowers are held in spikes above the foliage: usually each single spike has rings, or whorls, of small flowers along it, although sometimes they are so densely packed that they appear more like one single block of flowers.

Older plants tend to have thick, woody stems which are brittle and easily broken, even under their own weight.

How to grow Lavender
Lavender are very easy plants to buy and to grow: every garden centre has them, and they are mostly quite tough, as long as they are not sitting in waterlogged ground. Being of Mediterranean extraction, they like their roots to be well drained, and their tops to be in full sun, so they are ideal for planting next to paths, where the sun gets reflected back to bake them, and their roots are partly sheltered from the rain. If your soil is a bit heavy, then just dig in half a bucketful of sand or fine gravel before planting: or put them in pots, which is ideal for most lavenders: they thrive on neglect, and can be moved into a sheltered area in case of a harsh winter. Rather like gremlins, you should never feed them: they simply don't require fertiliser - and likewise you should never mulch them, other than with gravel or shingle, as damp organic matter will cause their stems to rot.

Despite the cries of “But we've had a Lavender plant for the last 20 years!” they are actually a short-lived plant: professional growers reckon on a life-span of just five years in a garden setting, 10-12 years when grown industrially: and indeed after this time, they do tend to get very “woody” lower down, and to fall open in a rather untidy manner. You can extend their lives, as the industry does, by clipping them back hard every summer, just after flowering: take off the whole of the flowering stalk, and at least half of the greenery below, to keep them compact and neat.

If, however, they have already reached the floppy, woody stage, then they cannot be retrieved: Lavender will not grow back from old wood, so if you cut them too hard, they will just die. This, incidentally, is the reason most people don't clip their Lavenders hard enough: they are worried about killing the plant. The trick is to look for small leaves on the stems: as long as you can see small leaves, you can safely cut to that point, even if it seems to be an awful long way down the stem, but if there are no small leaves, then cutting to that point will result in that stem dying.

However, this does not mean that a treasured plant is beyond redemption: they are very easy to take cuttings from, and they also set seed prolifically, so if you look around the base of your elderly Lavender, there is a good chance that you will find some small seedlings. Dig these up, pot them on, and let them grow: then next year, you can reverentially rip out the old plant and replace it with a younger one.

The perfect way to propagate Lavender is with a shingle path: they are guaranteed to produce any number of seedlings in the shingle, so if you have old plants overhanging a shingle path, lift up the foliage and check the shingle, you might be surprised at how many seedlings you can find. Work them gently loose from the shingle and pot them up for a year, then use them to replace any ageing Lavenders.

So what about other plants called “Lavender”?
As well as Lavandula, the main rivals are the Cotton Lavenders (Santolina) and the so-called Sea Lavenders.

Cotton Lavender is Santolina, a popular drought-tolerant shrub which is, in truth, nothing like Lavender: possibly the name originates in the foliage being aromatic - although many people find the scent distinctly unpleasant - and the flowers being a little similar to those of the cotton plant. However, the foliage is very wiry and is either silvery-grey or, in Santolina virens, a truly bright green, and the flowers are small, button-like, and bright yellow; not much like a proper Lavender at all! We have a dozen cultivars of Santolina in our Plant Finder, and they are often used where normal Lavender has struggled.

Sea Lavenders come in three types: Limonium, Goniolimon and the unpronounceable Psylliostachys (Silly-oh-stack-iss).

Limoniums range from Limonium brassicifolium with tiny lilac-coloured flowers, through the rich pink, dense flowers of Limonium perezii, to Limonium suworowii with narrow white bottle-brush flowers: they are often not fully hardy, but are happy in very well-drained soils and can tolerate coastal weather, hence the popular name of Sea Lavender.

Goniolimon tataricum has a low rosette of leather green leaves, and prickly heads of tiny white flowers which are mostly found as dried flowers, where they are popular for using in wreaths and other arrangements. Although not very lavender-like in appearance, they share the Mediterranean origins, and therefore also like very well drained soil.

Our unpronounceable Psylliostachys suworowii has pink flowers, and again a basal rosette of foliage: not exactly a traditional Lavender, but it shares the coastal habitat with the other Sea lavenders.

Finally, we have a whole swathe of plants who are merely Lavender-coloured - Rhododendron ‘Lavender Girl’ for example, or the bell-flower Heather, Erica cinerea ‘Hookstone Lavender’: Impatiens walleriana ‘Tempo Lavender’ is a good example, and there are even a couple of roses, including Rosa ‘Lavender Lassie’ which is actually two shades of pink!

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