Fragrant English Lavender as a Garden Border

Learn the ancient history of Lavandula officinalis and the benefits of growing fragrant English lavender as a garden border.

| July/August 1980

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. 

History of Lavender

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.”

English Lavender and Everything in Between

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.

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