By: Jessie Keith
Wands of fragrant purple blooms dance in the wind, feeding bees, and shining cheerfully on even the hottest summer days. These are the flowers of lavender, a plant beloved for its aroma and ability to grow well in tough Mediterranean climates. This aromatic evergreen perennial has been used in perfumes, poultices and potpourris for centuries, giving it high value in the herb garden. And, many diverse varieties exist, so there’s lavender to satisfy almost every gardener.
There are nearly 50 lavender species, all with lovely flowers that attract bees and butterflies. One of the dividing factors when choosing lavender for your garden is hardiness. Only a few species are truly hardy, and most fare poorly in areas with dense soils and cold, wet winters. This guide will help you choose the best lavender for your needs and plant it correctly to ensure it will survive and thrive.
English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, 2-4’) is excellent for containers or sunny, raised beds where fragrance and summer color are needed. It is one of the hardiest lavenders surviving in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. The shrubby evergreen perennial has a bushy habit and fragrant, linear gray-green leaves that turn fully gray in winter. From early to midsummer, it bears slender stems topped with wands of lavender-blue flowers that are very fragrant.
The white-flowered variety ‘Alba’ offers a more neutral color option. The compact ‘Munstead’ is also a favorite heavily flowered variety that only reaches 2 to 1.5 feet. And, for seed growers, the 1994 AAS Flower Winner ‘Lady’ is compact English lavender that will bloom first year from seed.
This lavender is native to Western Europe, so it is more tolerant of moist growing conditions, which is why it is grown in England, but it also thrives in Mediterranean climates. Some stem die back might occur in winter. If this happens, simply prune off the old, haggard stems in spring to keep plants looking nice.
Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia, 2-3’), also called hedge lavender, is a tough plant favored for dry growing areas. It’s very vigorous and will survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 8, if provided excellent drainage. This popular lavender is a hybrid between hybrid between English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Portuguese spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia). It is slightly less hardy than English lavender but will withstand a little more heat and drought.
The foliage and habit is much like that of English lavender, and its summer flowers are very dense and richly aromatic. The wealth of slender stems hold dense clusters of lavender-blue flowers, which are sterile, so their seed cannot be collected. After the first flush of flowers, cut them back to encourage further bloom. The exceptional new cultivar ‘Phenomenal’, bred by Peace Tree Farm, is a little hardier, surviving up to zone 5, and produces loads of lavender blue stems and has little winter die back. ‘Grosso’ is another favorite variety prized for its extra-large, extra-fragrant purple blooms.
Fringed lavender (Lavandula dentata, 1.5-2’) is a sea and hillside perennial Mediterranean native that will survive in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 9. It is exceptionally heat and drought tolerant and suited to southerly arid or coastal region. It has delicate green to gray-green leaves with scalloped edges. Unlike the other lavenders mentioned, it has a more mounding, spreading habit and moderately fragrant spikes of fuzzy lavender flowers topped by showy lavender-blue bracts that appear in summer.
This lavender is perfect for border edges or containers, and will form a spreading mound over time. It also looks great in large containers.
The everblooming nature of this lavender makes it especially appealing. Airy, fast-growing and aromatic, French lace (Lavandula multifida, 1-2’) is native to the northwestern Mediterranean region where conditions are arid. The open, shrubby perennial is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zones 8 to 9 and becomes woody as it matures. Its fragrant, evergreen leaves are gray-green and ferny and long-stemmed flowers are violet-blue and held high above the leaves.
If plants become too woody, prune them back in spring to encourage new, denser growth, and a tidier habit.
Fragrant ferny leaves of silver-green are one of fernleaf lavender’s (Lavandula pinnata, 2-3’) greatest appeals. This native of the Canary Islands and Madeira requires arid growing conditions and survives to USDA Hardiness Zones 9 to 11, making it the tenderest of the lavenders mentioned. It is bushy and becomes woody over time. Like French lace, its small, angular spikes of lavender-blue flowers are long-stemmed and everblooming. Keep spent flowers cut back to encourage keep plants looking tidy.
The highly fragrant French lavender (Lavandula stoechas, 1-3’) has some of the showiest flowers of all the lavenders. The Mediterranean native was grown by the Romans for its exceptional scent, and its ability to thrive in hot and dry conditions. It is a bit hardier, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10.
The shrubby perennial spreads as it ages, forming a considerable mound that should be pruned back in spring to keep it looking its best. It has fine, silvery foliage and bears many thin, upright stems holding oval clusters of very dark purple flowers topped with big plumes of bright purple bracts. There are many varieties that may be pale lavender, pink or white. The compact lavender-pink-flowered ‘Madrid Pink’ is one of the better forms, as is ‘Anouk’, which is vigorous, early blooming, and very showy. New flowers will keep appearing, if you remove the old blooms. French lavender also comes in pinkish shades.
Full sun and sharply drained soil are essential for success. Moist winter weather can quickly cause stem and root rot, if soil is not perfectly drained. Lavenders generally grow best in more alkaline soils that are raised and gravelly with added organic matter, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Newly planted lavenders should be watered regularly for a few weeks, until they become established. Once established they generally can take care of themselves, especially those most adapted to arid climates. They tend to grow well in nutrient-poor soils, but the addition of a slow-release fertilize will support good growth and flowering and encourage fuller growth and flowering.
Container-grown specimens are best planted in large pots filled with fast-draining soil like Fafard® Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. In areas with cold or wet winters, you can move the pots to a cool, protected porch to keep them away from excess snow and cold. Just don’t let the pots become completely dry.
Lavenders are semi-woody, and can look ill-kept over time. In spring, once new foliage has begun to emerge, prune old or dead stems back to encourage new, fresh looking foliage.
If you want to harvest lavender flowers for dried flower arrangements, sachets, or potpourri, cut stems when flowers are still fresh and hang them upside down in a cool, dry place. Once dry, you can display the stems or pull off the aromatic dried buds for use.
Plant lavender in areas where their wonderful fragrance can best be enjoyed. They make wonderful patio or walkway edgings and give garden spaces a Mediterranean flair.
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