Growing Lavender

By Debra Knapke

“There’s a few things I’ve learned in life: Always throw salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for good luck and fall in love whenever you can.”Alice Hoffman

In the language of flowers, lavender can mean distrust and suspicion, or devotion, loyalty and good luck. It was once believed that the deadly asp made its home in lavender so any harvesting of wild plants needed to be done with care and suspicion. I prefer the notion of devotion. 

Down through history lavender has had many devotees. Both the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra were reputed to have used lavender in their alluring perfumes.  Queen Elizabeth I commanded that lavender conserve be served at every meal. And Queen Victoria appointed a “Royal Purveyor of Lavender Essence” to provide Buckingham Palace with a constant supply of lavender for scenting linens and rooms.

My love affair with lavender began in the late-’80s. When it was time to choose a plant for my master’s thesis, lavender was my first choice. After three years researching and testing this species I became an admirer of this herb of use and delight.

Lavandula angustifolia is the botanical name for English lavender. The name directly translates to narrow-leaved lavender. Etymologists believe that the word Lavandula comes from one of two Latin verbs: lavare—to wash—or livendulo—livid or bluish. The former refers to the practice of using lavender to cleanse while the latter refers to flower color. The translation lavare is more popular and it implies that lavender’s many qualities have been understood and valued since the time of Ancient Rome. Today we know that lavender has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and antioxidant properties. According to Valerie Ann Worwood, a well-known aromatherapist and author, it is also an antidepressant and a sedative. Another way of expressing this: Its scent invigorates the senses while decreasing anxious feelings. 

In the everyday world, lavender shows up in many products, some which may surprise you. Check your cleaning products, especially if they are “natural.” Lavender is used in many cosmetics, perfumes, lotions and soaps. In a blended perfume, lavender is used either as a top note—the first scent you detect—or as a middle note—a bridge between the ephemeral top note and the long-lasting base note. Its placement in the recipe depends on the other scents that surround it. 

Lavender is one of the modern components of Herbes de Provence. Traditionally, this basic herb mix contains rosemary, savory, marjoram and thyme. In the 1970s other herbs were included as cooks personalized the combination. Now you will find lavender buds, fennel, chervil, basil, tarragon and oregano in the mix. Some purists maintain that oregano should never be included and the other modern ingredients should be added carefully, but I find Herbes de Provence to be lacking “something” without lavender and fennel. Try using Herbes de Provence liberally in your fish, chicken and vegetable recipes. In our home, it is a required addition to roasted vegetables.

If you want to grow your own supply for cooking or scenting, there are three requirements: sun, drainage and air circulation. Lavenders grow in the windy, Mediterranean region in gritty, alkaline soils. Often the tough, fibrous roots anchor the plant in a thin layer of soil over rock or in the rock itself. So imagine the “culture shock” lavender undergoes in Ohio’s clay soils. Lavenders are easily hardy to zone 5 (average minimum temperatures in the -10° to -20° range), so it isn’t cold that kills them, but wet, slow-draining soils. Bottom line: Plant lavenders in higher, well-drained areas of the garden where they will get six or more hours of sun. And avoid those dead-air spots in the garden such as in the corner by the evergreens. 

Often lavenders will have some branch dieback in the winter. In early- to mid-April prune out obviously dead branches, but wait until you harvest the buds in late May/early June before shaping the plant. The best essential oil is in the unopened lavender buds. Once the buds open, the quantity and quality of the scent and the essential oil content significantly decreases. The leaves, while nicely fragrant, are not harvested for essential oil production and should not be used in food, aromatherapy or in body products. Without getting too far into the chemistry, there are some compounds in the leaves that can be harmful to sensitive users.

Lavender has been a part of my life for years. I hope you will give it a try. Here’s a good place to start: our family’s answer to biscotti.