By Stephanie Hudak
Through these columns I have been telling you how important it is to refer to the botanical names of plants so that you get the right one when you are at the nursery and, more importantly, so that you know what will successfully grow in your garden. This really applies to one plant in particular – lavender. We all love to have lavender in our garden so we can use it in sachets, potpourri or just to brush against it walking along a path. But not all lavender grows well here in the humid South.
So first back to the issue of botanical names. Giving credit to the founder of this system, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and zoologist, without him naming plants was just chaos. We start off with the first name which is the genus and it always starts with a capital letter and is written in italics. The second part of the name is the species; it’s also in italics but starts with a small case letter. In the case of lavender one example would be Lavandula angustifolia. Getting the genus identified is fairly easy – you just have to make the connection and remember it. The species is where it gets a little more confusing but where the real help lies.
Starting with Lavandula angustifolia: this is English, or common, lavender which has long, narrow, gray-green leaves. Then we have Lavandula latifolia, with broad, silvergray leaves; Lavandula dentata, with leaves that have a “toothed” edge to them. You can see where knowing a little Latin will help identify what the plant should look like. But just to spice things up a little (yes, pun intended here) if we mix two species we get something like Lavandula x intermedia – theoretically the best of two species. And from there will be the cultivars – the pretty names we find easiest to remember – which are printed with single quotes and no italics.
The best lavenders for us in the South are the French (L. dentata) and Spanish (L. stoechas) types. Some really good lavenders that are readily available are: Lavendula x intermedia ‘Grosso’, large fat lavender flower spikes on 2-3 foot mounded plants; L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’, deep purple flowers at 18 inches tall; and L. x intermedia ‘Provence’ with lavender-blue flowers. I can’t speak for what the box stores carry, but if you buy from the independent nurseries, you will usually get lavender that is suited for this area.
After you have selected a variety that will do well here, then you have to give it the environment it needs in order to thrive. Remember, the native habitat of lavenders is generally poor soil in dry, hilly areas, which translates to excellent drainage. And because it comes from Mediterranean regions, it will be frost sensitive so keep that in mind although some selections can tolerate temperatures in the single digits. It is rare that we don’t have to amend our heavy, clay soil with compost or other amendments, but after that, for lavenders, go one step further and add grit or a similar material to provide the best drainage possible. Be sure the plant is set on higher ground – a hillside or a small mound if the ground is flat. About that humidity – since we can’t do a thing about it, be sure to provide good air circulation around the plant; and a mulch of gravel or pebbles will help keep moisture from the base. Watering in the early morning helps by allowing the plants to absorb moisture through the roots but lets the leaves dry. But the good news is that lavender tolerates drought, heat and winds – we sure can provide those.
Now how do you keep them growing and producing repeat blooms? In the spring, after new growth appears, you can “trim” the plants and remove dead stems. But do not cut them down to the ground. After the plants bloom, shear them back by one-third. If you plan to dry the flowers, gather the stalks when about half of the plant’s flowers are open. Cutting early in the morning ensures more concentration of the oils. Hang the bundles upside down in a “warm, dark, airy place” – you’re on your own with that problem.
Lavender is really not that hard to grow here if you just remember to keep it “dry.” And it is such a rewarding plant that you have to need some, even if you resort to clay pots on the patio. A good soil mixture for pots is a third each of sand, topsoil or compost and grit; and don’t forget a drainage hole in that pot. When you get a happy bed of lavender you can start thinking about cooking with it, but that is for another column.
“The great challenge for the garden designer is not to make the garden look natural, but to make the garden so the people in it will feel natural.” –Lawrence Halprin
Hugs to all.