The beautiful blue-purple flower spikes of lavender are one of the highlights of summer, and this plant is one of the most loved, and one that has a nostalgic charm. Perhaps it’s the instantly-recognizable scent of the leaves and flowers. Perhaps it’s the way they remind you of trips to the south of France, or Italy – if you have been that lucky. Whatever it is, this plant remains as popular as ever. In fact, there has been a revival of interest, because lavender is a plant super-adapted to heat and dryness – perfect for today’s water-wise gardening and the increasingly-hot summers happening in many parts of the country. So if you want it for the charm, or for the practical survival ability, or both, then we are going to help you make the perfect choice.
Lavender is a very popular plant, but for many gardeners, especially in colder parts of the country, but also in places where it is humid as well as hot, it isn’t always the easiest to succeed with. Part of the problem is that while a lot of lavenders look similar, in fact there are many different ones, and they vary a lot in their hardiness and reliability. So before buying, especially if you are planning a big purchase like a hedge, it pays to learn a little about the choices. That way you can make the best one for you, and have the best chance of success.
The Different Lavenders
Let’s start by going over the different types of lavender, so we can then assess them for their usefulness in your situation. If you venture into the botany of it, you will see there are about 47 species listed, but don’t worry about that because almost all are only of interest to botanists, and gardeners only need to know about 4 or 5 – that’s a relief!
English Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia This is by far the most widely grown (but it may not be best for you. . .), and the name is not about where it grows wild, but because it’s the type that is most likely to grow well in England. You may also see it called ‘true lavender’, and with the older botanical name of Lavandula officinalis. As a wild plant it grows around the Mediterranean, from Spain through southern France and Italy. Sounds hot, right? The secret to the success of this plant in England, and its hardiness in zone 5, is that it doesn’t grow just anywhere in those countries, but up in the mountains, where winters are colder, even if summer days are blisteringly hot. The best quality lavender oil comes from this plant.
Some of the best-known names for lavender varieties are of this plant. The two classics are still going strong 100 years and more after their introduction in the Edwardian (Arts & Crafts) era. These are ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’, both named after famous houses and gardens of the era. Relatively small, they have good winter hardiness.
Spike Lavender – Lavandula latifolia This species grows in much the same countries as ‘English’ lavender, but not in the same places. It is found lower down the mountains, where winters are warmer, so it isn’t as hardy as English Lavender. But, importantly, it takes a lot more heat, but isn’t as cold-resistant, so zone 6 is the lowest limit for it. The flowers tend to be paler than with English lavender, and it has a distinctive, heavier smell, with camphor and sharper notes.
French & Spanish Lavenders – Lavandula dentata & Lavandula stoechas I am putting these together because both only grow in the warmest areas, zones 8 and 9. They are distinctive for the ‘ears’ that sprout from the top of the flower spikes, much larger in L. stoechas, but present in French lavender too. These are charming plants if you live in warmer zones, or as summer pot plants anywhere. There are several varieties of Spanish lavender, with white, pink, or purple ‘ears’ adding lots of color for the boldest display of any lavender.
Lavandin – Lavandula x intermedia This plant is a hybrid. It is found on rare occasions in the wild, where both English and Spike lavenders grow together. For example, in southern France, this is between 1,500 and 2,500 feet above sea level, around the top of the range of Spike lavender, and around the bottom of it for English lavender. Bees carry pollen around, and you know how it goes. . .
This plant has been collected by farmers where it occurs for a very long time. Why? Because it is more vigorous and larger-growing, and yields much more oil, although not of such a high quality, as the English lavender. Varieties include the original ‘Lavandin de Provence’, as well as ‘Grosso’, the major commercial variety today, and others. These are also the largest of the lavenders, mostly reaching a generous 3 feet tall and wide, although some varieties are smaller. All are hardy to zone 5.
All lavender plants needs some things the same – and some different. Let’s look at the ones that are the same:
Light: full sun is pretty essential for growing lavender well. It really doesn’t enjoy any shade at all, but if it must, no more than an hour or two a day is acceptable. Find a bright, sheltered sunny place, and you have the first important thing right.
Soil: along with all that sun goes good drainage, which means a soil that doesn’t sit around wet with puddles after a heavy rain. In winter it won’t accumulate water either, and get coated with ice. The classic ‘well-drained’ soil is really important. The ideal soil is very well-drained, a soil with lots of sand in it, and even gravel and small stones. After all, that describes well the landscape you would find it growing in naturally.
Clay soils are not ideal, and if that is what you have the best idea is to choose a place higher up, and plant your lavender on a mound of earth. If you can add a large amount of coarse sand too – about one-third of the volume of soil – that is good too, but a couple of handfuls does no good at all. If you have poor, dry soil, or alkaline soil on limestone, then your lavender will be happy.
Don’t add compost or other organic materials, and don’t use an organic mulch or bark either. A gravel mulch is acceptable, but not necessary – the sun directly on the ground warms it, and dries it more quickly if you live somewhere with fairly regular rain.
Choosing the Right Lavender for You – climate
Now we come to the most important factor in making a choice. What is your growing zone and what is your weather like?
Looking at the species talked about higher up, you can immediately see that if you live in zone 5 you have two choices. Grow English lavender for the classic ‘English garden’ look, and if you don’t have a lot of room. Although not so widely known, Lavandin is quickly proving its value in zone 5, plus having great resistance to heat and humidity. Choose it if for planting on a larger scale, and for fabulous ‘Provence’ hedges of lavender.
In zones 6 and 7 the choices are the same, but you are likely to have superb results with English lavender and Lavandin, since they will appreciate your milder winters and hotter summers, without the stress of too much humidity. They certainly will enjoy as much heat as you can give them, even in the southwest or in the Prairie states.
If you are in zones 8 and 9, it would be best to avoid English lavender, grow Lavandin, but also enjoy the unique beauty of French and Spanish lavender varieties.