Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Lavare. Just writing this Latin derivative meaning 'to wash' evokes spas filled with lavender bathing soaps and oils. Relaxing. If there is one shrub I thoroughly look forward to giving a trim, it is lavender when the blooms are ready for harvesting. And that's it! Little care otherwise, if lavender is in the right location with supportive soil and moisture (without overwatering)...a low maintenance plant.
The reward of prolific, fragrant, shades of purple blooms contrasted with gray foliage is striking as seen from Provencal fields, but it might not translate well to the small garden albeit still a treat. We see hyper colorized photos all over the internet, but in real life, the coloring is more subtle except for a few cultivars. For the true lavender aficionado, the fragrance is the goal not the color. Quite often, however, designers are looking for the visual appeal, and the color presents challenges: finding the right cultivar and making sure it does not recede into the background as most blues and purples will do. Location matters if the color is going to pop.
Lavandula angustifolia, counter to the common name English lavender, is not native to England despite its popularity in the U.K. It is one of the hardiest lavenders from the Mediterranean, lending itself to landscape design. Today, there are numerous cultivars and crossbred species to choose from, ranging in size, color, and intensity of fragrance. Of this collection, the most widely specified by designers and therefore are commonly available at nurseries are as follows:
L.a. 'Hidcote': One of the most compact plants, and if you are lucky, can be the deepest color. Author Virginia McNaughton describes two L.a. 'Hidcote' species on the market today, where "Plant A has been maintained as a cutting source for over 50 years, while Plant B seems to have appeared in the marketplace during the 1990s, also proclaimed to be the true 'Hidcote' (p. 83). McNaughton further describes Plant B has having more plumb flower spikes and denser foliage. For these reasons, the difference has been mixed up within the cultivar, therefore the best but time-consuming option is to select plants while in bloom.
L.a. 'Munstead': Another shorter cultivar with a long bloom cycle. Similar to 'Hidcote,', 'Munstead' is grown by seed and can be highly variable (McNaughton, p. 93).
L. x intermedia 'Grosso': A cross between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia, 'Grosso' is one of the strongly fragrant, commercially grown cultivars. This may just be the one to plant for harvesting, although the others are fine for personal use as well.
L. x intermedia 'Provence': Full disclosure, this is the one I always plant. Just its name brings back fond memories of my studies in Southern France. Sigh...sorry...what was I saying? Oh, right. 'Provence' competes with 'Grosso' in form and flower but is not quite as fragrant for oils and perfumes. Best used for drying, as in creating lavender wands with their long stems or sachets.
L. x intermedia 'Silver Edge': For something with a subtle difference from the two above, the foliage has a creamy white margin separated by light green-gray center. From a distance, its appearance is almost indistinguishable from the two above. The photo detail below is its flower and leaf, as are the photos of its harvest.
What else do designers need to know? Firstly, there are numerous accounts of lavender's notoriously short life cycle (about 3 to 5 years). This partly is due to how it is cared for and site conditions. In ideal circumstances, it may last much longer, but how long may be up for discussion. Instead, anticipate its decline and make sure your client has a succession plan.
Secondly, bees love it. It is difficult for me to imagine this as a negative, but some people are allergic or simply uncomfortable with bees around. For example, it would not be recommended to plant near a dining patio despite its attractiveness. People may find the bees unpleasant while dining, and if the fragrance is strong, the flowers might compete with dining al fresco (depending on the menu, may or may not be a good thing).
Finally, English lavender and its cultivars are commonly used to border pathways or as hedges, which is not unlike the rows of French agrarian fields. While they can be planted close together, their crowding might contribute to a shorter lifespan. Instead, consider spacing them apart enough for each plant to bloom symmetrically.
Botanical Name: Lavandula angustifolia
Lavandula: Latin, lavare meaning to wash
Angustifolia: Having narrow leaves
Common Name: English lavender
Family Name: Lamiaceae
Origin: Southern Europe
Positioning: Middle to foreground
Garden Themes: Mediterranean/drought, children's, pollinator, kitchen/herb, sensory, rock, cutting, courtyard
Uses: Cut flower, agrarian, border, mass, accent, container, formal or informal hedge, topiary
Type: Evergreen shrub
Form: Round, mound
Size: Non-cultivar 2' tall and wide without flowers (as much as 3.5' with). Sizes vary with cultivars
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower, fragrance
Bark: Light gray to tan
Stem: Square, tomentose, gray or gray-green
Leaf: Large, sharply hooked thorns along petiole
Color: Gray, gray-green, silver
Surface: Slight tomentose
Flower: Summer. Terminal peduncles set on long stalks with clusters of tiny lavender, deep purple, pink, or white (varying by cultivars) flowers, very fragrant and edible.
Fruit: Summer to Autumn. Capsules form at terminal peduncles, used in culinary arts
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 2-24
USDA Zones: 5-9
Light: Full sun
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Low
Texture: Sand, rocky
Moisture Retention: Well-drained
pH: Neutral to highly alkaline
Tolerances: Drought, heat, deer
Branch Strength: N/A
Insects: Not available at time of posting
Disease: Root rot, leaf spot
citations & attributions
Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. "Lavandula angustifolia." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on July 31, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/lavandula-angustifolia/.
McNaughton, V. (2000). Lavender: the grower's guide. Portland: Timber Press, Inc.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Plant Finder. "Lavandula angustifolia." Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Accessed on July 31, 2021, from https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=281393&isprofile=1&gen=Lavandula.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on July 27, 2021.
Feature photo and lavender fields purchased from Shutterstock.
All other photos by TELCS.