In the Garden of Eden, smell was the only one of the five senses not to be corrupted by the wily serpent. The reason for this, the Talmud instructs, was that the sense of smell – distinct from the other senses – was created with an incorruptible spiritual quality. Fragrance, the sages taught, was uniquely endowed with a dauntless capacity to nourish, refresh and purify the soul.
The increasing popularity of lavender – that aromatic shrub – would thus show that the world is headed in a more spiritual direction. Most people, after all, grow and use lavender exclusively for its fragrance.
Throughout the world, more and more lavender farms are beginning to appear. And the industry for lavender processing and, especially, distillation of lavender oil is being expanded. Traditionally, France has been the main cultivator and purveyor of lavender. England and Spain are also major growers and exporters of this crop. Recently, though, new acreage has been planted with lavender in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa,and Canada, as well as in this country, on farms from Pennsylvania to Oregon.
One of the reasons for lavender’s widespread cultivation is its hardiness. The most commonly planted lavenders are native to elevations of more than 2,000 feet – in the lower French Alps – and are hardy to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, like other cold-climate plants, their flowering is enhanced by chilling temperatures. Lavender in full bloom is a more glorious spectacle in San Francisco than in Los Angeles because of the colder winters up north.
Lavender’s needs are minimal: plenty of light and fast-draining soil. In hot Valley locations, however, lavender grows best when given some protection from the afternoon sun. In even the hottest weather, though, lavender should never need to be watered more than once a week, so long as it is soaked with a hose and not watered with overhead sprinklers. Like most herbs, however, it requires fertilization only when grown in a container.
Locally, Los Angeles nurseries have had a hard time keeping up with the demand for lavender. Kathleen Mudry, who works for El Nativo, a wholesale grower in Azusa, said, “We kept expecting the enthusiasm for lavender to wane. We thought it was a plant which, like so many others, would be fashionable for a time and then gradually lose its appeal. It now appears, however, that lavender has become a staple of the nursery trade, a must-have plant for everyone, whether you garden in the back yard or on the balcony. Lots of people discovered that lavender is the perfect plant for container gardens.”
Evidence of its suitability for container growing may be found on the steps leading up to the entrance of the Getty Center in Brentwood. There, lavender forms the mainstay of a multicontainer display of sun-loving plants native to Mediterranean climates like our own.
There are at least seven types of lavender available locally: English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia); spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia); Lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia), which is a hybrid between English and spike lavender; dwarf English lavender; French lavender (Lavandula dentata); Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas); and California lavender (Lavandula pinnata).
The first three types in the preceding list are the lavender of commerce, robust species whose flowers have the most intense fragrances. The other lavender have more ornamental value – the dwarf English (“Hidcote” and “Munstead” cultivars) with distinctive silver-gray foliage, the California with finely cut leaves, the French with serrated leaves and large woolly flowers, and the Spanish with dark purple winged bracts all along its flower spikes. These names are often mixed up, since English lavender is native to France, French lavender is native to Spain, California lavender originates in the Canary Islands, and Spanish lavender is found growing in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.
One of the favorite uses of lavender is as a low, informal hedge, with heights ranging from 2 to 4 feet, depending on the species. Such a hedge is cut back only when it finishes flowering. In the larger types, the plants may be cut back by half with no ill effects; with the dwarfs, shear off faded flower spikes but prune foliage sparingly.
Under the best circumstances, lavender will probably live for no more than five or six years. This should not be a matter of concern, however, since it is easily propagated by shoot-tip cuttings. When the plant finishes flowering, take four 6-inch cuttings and root them in a mix that is half sand and half peat moss.
Tip of the week: Lavender makes a wonderful tapestry hedge with plants of similar stature and cultural requirements but contrasting foliage. At Filoli Gardens near San Francisco, it makes a vivid display in combination with green santolina and dwarf red-leaf barberry.