Learn the ancient history of Lavandula officinalis and the benefits of growing fragrant English lavender as a garden border.
Lavender is famous for its delicate floral scent and was used by early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to adorn their sacrificial alters.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/CARLY HENNIGAN
Lately, more and more people have begun to understand just how limited — in both variety and nutritional value — our “modern” diets have become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs, those plants that — although not well-known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored “guests” on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents’ homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS examines the availability, cultivation and benefits of our “forgotten” vegetable foods and remedies and — we hope — helps prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore.
If there’s a single, pervasive reason why you should make lavender a part of your landscape, it is of course the plant’s famous fragrance.
This ancient and aromatic herb once adorned the sacrificial altars of early Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Virgil praised the honey of bees that fed on its sweetness, and the Romans were so fond of using its flowers in their perfumes, soaps and baths that the name “lavender” was derived from the Latin verb lavare, meaning “to wash.”
Years later, France’s Charles VI reclined on lavender-filled satin cushions, Queen Elizabeth I was particularly fond of “lavender conserves,” and in 1895 it was reported that Queen Victoria’s royal residences “are thoroughly impregnated with the refreshing odour of this old fashioned flower, and there is no perfume that the Queen likes better.”
There are 28 different species of lavender, and many separate varieties among these. The hardiest and sweetest-smelling type is Lavandula vera, better known as “English” or “true” lavender. Also very popular is Lavandula spica, or “spike” lavender, a plant that has broader leaves that contain more oil than do those of L. vera, although its flowers are somewhat less fragrant. Both varieties are frequently grouped under the more general name of Lavandula officinalis.
Though you can grow this herb from seed, its slow germination and low survival rate will try the patience of average gardeners, so it’s generally best to start with nursery plants or take cuttings from a friend’s garden.
When planting stem cuttings, use pieces no longer than 3 inches with at least two nodes included on each little limb. Root them in sand, cinders, vermiculite or sphagnum, and keep them partly shaded, moderately moist and protected from drafts.
Root cuttings should be made in fall or winter and cool-stored in pots of sandy loam before spacing them 2 to 3 feet apart outdoors in spring (after danger of frost).
When making plant divisions, simply dig up 3-year-old plants and tear each root cluster in two. Lavender gets too woody if left undivided for much longer than three seasons.
Though the sweet-scented plant is an ideal little shrub to border walkways and flower beds, make sure the location has well-drained, limed, sandy (or even rocky) soil along with plenty of sun, plus wind protection. In areas where temperatures drop below zero, you should probably bring your lavender plants indoors for the winter. In any case, it’s best to prune the herbs back after they bloom.
The flowers, which make their appearance in July and August, should be picked just before the buds open. Dry them, if possible, in the shade at 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then strip the flowers from the stems and store the blooms in airtight containers for use in sachets, potpourri, herbal baths, herb jellies, etc. In the olden days, lavender petals were strewn on church and castle floors to sweeten the air, and much the same effect can be created today by sprinkling the flowers over carpets before you vacuum them.
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