English lavender – fragrance, colour,
wildlife value, and versatility
There are very few gardeners who fail to fall for the many charms of lavender – what is that you love about this beautiful, heavenly-scented and versatile plant?
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has long been recognised for its numerous uses, medicinal ones in particular.
The Egyptians used it in the embalming process; soaking the shrouds in lavender infusions helped to preserve the mummies. The Ancient Greeks used it as a remedy for a huge number of ailments, and they were the first people to discover its sedative attributes as a cure for insomnia.
The Romans praised it for its antiseptic qualities, and used it in bathing and washing clothes. And it has been used in battles as a dressing for wounds – in the First World War it was included in soldiers’ first aid kits.
But aside from these important medicinal uses it is the scent of lavender that has earned it such high regard in perfumes and cosmetics.
Fit for a queen
Rows of lavender are commonplace in Provence
Queen Victoria was a lover of lavender as a scent, and it became very fashionable with the ladies of the day.
English lavender became a profitable industry with the main growing areas being just south of London.
Sadly the rise in land prices after the First World War pushed the growers out of business.
These days commercial lavender growing is more commonly associated with the Provence region of France.
The vast expanses of purple and blue in summer have become an iconic image and are a huge tourist attraction.
Lavender lifts any garden
Today lavender is one of our most popular and well loved garden plants and it is easy to see why.
Its glorious profusion of scented flowers, available in all manner of purples, blues, pinks and whites, hover on their sturdy wand-like stems over very fine silver grey leaves.
Once the flowers have faded – or been cut and dried and put to use in the house – the shrubs are neatly clipped, and the evergreen foliage remains a feature through the winter until growth begins again in spring.
The enduring adoration for lavender in the garden is also due to its superb adaptability. From the sharp lines of a contemporary garden to a traditional soft-edged cottage style garden, lavender has a place in them all.
From front doors to formal gardens
One fantastic way to use lavender is to plant as a hedge along a walkway. A path to your front door planted on both sides with lavender means that as you brush past you release that wonderful aroma.
There are many gardens across the country where this approach has been used to wonderful effect, and Castle Hill Gardens in Devon is a particularly fine example.
Lavender walkway at Avebury Manor, Wiltshire
© Richard Bradshaw
The lavender walkway at Avebury Manor in Wiltshire is punctuated with Box balls, which is a lovely detail and adds some interest.
Lavender can also be planted as an edge to a lawn or border, or to define an area of gravel or paving. At Nymans in West Sussex it is planted as an edge to the croquet lawn.
If regularly pruned, lavender can be kept in very neat form. And when planted into gravel, along with other structural plants and topiary such as Box (Buxus sempervirens) a garden takes on a positively beautiful Mediterranean feel.
And given a warm, bright summer's day, this style of planting will be strikingly reminiscent of the classic Italian gardens of the Renaissance period. One garden that demonstrates this superbly is Nicole de Vesian's garden 'La Louve' in Provence.
Hidcote and Munstead
Hidcote is named after Lawrence Johnson's garden at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. It is a deep purple variety that produces lovely plump flowers over a dense mound of foliage growing to around 60cm high.
Munstead is named after Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Munstead Wood in Surrey. It has a beautiful slender bluish-purple flower. A slightly more compact form than Hidcote, it is thought to be better in windy and coastal areas.
Both are tremendously attractive to bees and beneficial insects.
Planting and maintenance
The best time to plant lavender is into warm soil, usually from late April through to early June (depending on our 'characterful' climate!).
Being a Mediterranean plant, it thrives in a poor, free draining soil in full sun. A heavy or clay soil can be improved by adding organic matter such as leaf mould and gravel. A good tip is to create mounds of soil to plant into, which keeps the base of the plants above any excessively wet ground.
When planting a hedge, plant on a ridge and allow for 3 plants per metre. Pruning should be carried out every autumn, in order to keep plants looking bushy and healthy. It involves careful clipping of the foliage, back to around 2cm of new growth. Lavenders do not take kindly to hard pruning, so cutting back into old woody growth should be avoided.
And finally, a bit of commitment to dead-heading your plants regularly through the season will encourage plenty of repeat flowering. And who would argue with that!