True Lavender

'Old English' Lavandin

"My mother, just for love of her,
Unlocks her carved drawers;
And sprigs of withered lavender
Drop down upon the floors."

-Lizette Woodworth Reese


Lavandula x intermedia hybrid lavenders are crosses of L. angustifolia with L. latifolia (aka L. spica). These hybrids are frequently called lavandin, originated as a natural cross, & were initially developed in France as early as the 1820s for their heightened oil content & grown as field crops. 'Old English" lavandin was released by Dorothy G. Hewer in 1930 from Herb Farm at Seal, Kent, in England. It is one of a several heirloom lavandins that form the English group.

'Old English' is quite a large shrub & one of the most redolent. Counting its slender spikes of flowers, ours had reached a height of five feet tall, & about eight feet wide. It was in full flower by mid July & continued to flower until deep into Autumn, even through a couple of frosts. Great numbers of bees were invariably active around the flowers, with a hive of bumblebees in the ground underneath it.

Bees amidst lavender are great fun to watch. They're quite tame really; I can pet their soft furry bodies while they glean the flowers & they don't seem to mind. They work through the lavender all day long, & at sunset, they stop in their places, nearly burrowing into whichever blossom they're on, & go to sleep right out in the open. When the sun warms them at dawn, they begin their endless gleaning once again. They'll be at it well into autumn. For as long as the lavender blooms hold out, so will the bees.

Way the other side of the gardens, there is a Ural False Spirea in bloom, & it is gleaned by little mason bees. There are rarely bumblebees on the Ural, & no mason bees in the lavender. I think this is the result of where their territory reaches rather than flower preference, as the distances most species of bees cover is far more finite than people usually realize.

At winter's cusp when the blooms are dry & spent, I cut them off for tidiness sake, & this induces the shrub to rebloom in our temperate zone even in December, though not very intensely as was the case in summer through early fall. It benefits from deadheading throughout the bloom season, but it has so many hundreds of spikes, it is a nuisance to deadhead; getting that done eratically doesn't seem to decrease its blooming energy.

Lavender should perhaps be called evergrey instead of evergreen, due to the color of the slender upright foliage. This big one grew on the sunniest side of the house. Overwatering can harm lavender & when we first bought the house, it was the dominant shrub in that garden & the area required no watering at all, which suited the lavender very well. As we added many plants, we attempted always to select plants with low water needs to go around the lavender.

In the best of conditions lavender isn't especially long-lived. Though a twenty-five year old specimen isn't impossible, such old shrubs are also not often attractive, & it's rare they still look splendid past about ten years, & not even that long if grown in too rich a soil or experiencing too much annual rainfall.

This big shrub of ours was very old, its central stem a veritable trunk. Such old specimens tend to get scraggly & half-dead looking, especially on the lower branches. Ours began to decline after a couple more years, but I was able to disguise its homely underside with a combinations of prunings & with other plantings in front of it, the upper portion being still beautiful.

Eventually I had to face the inevitable, & in 2002 I cut it back dramatically. There were two separate shrubs that had grown into one another, each with a twisted four-inch trunk. One of these I dug up & moved to a no-maintance sunny area by the road, but it so greatly resented the move that it did not recover. The other I trimmed in a way to reveal an interestingly shaped trunk & thick branchings, there being a rugged rustic crusty beauty to the main trunk, & this was kept another year before another shrub replaced it.

We could've started a new 'Old English' lavandin from cuttings, but didn't bother, as we had installed sundry select cultivars of lavenders here & there around the gardens, including the pint-sized L. angustifolia 'Hidcote,' the very tightly foliaged L. angustifolia 'Twickel Purple' & variegated Lavandula x intermedia 'Goldberg,' & several others. It was hard to dig out & discard the old one, but 'Old English' had served the previous owners of our house for many-many years, had enthused us for a very few more, & had come to the end of its natural life.

The freshest brightest flowers can be harvested for household purposes. One fine use is to make Lavender Sugar. There are two basic ways to make lavender sugar. One is to dry the flowers, powder them with aid of mortar & pestal, & mix them with powdered sugar. This can be used to dust cookies or pies, as well as for cooking. The other method of making Lavender Sugar is to layer fresh whole bloosoms in a container with granulated sugar. After a week or so the lavender odor will permeate the granuals, & it can be used for anything from sweetening one's coffee or tea to baking cakes. There's no need to remove the flowers from the sugar container, but if you've layered it well, you can discard the flowers slowly over time as you use the sugar down a layer, then down the next layer.

We also have Spanish Lavender which isn't quite as good for Lavender Sugar because it has more the flavor/odor of camphor than of lavender & is better used in tomato sauce or soups (meat eaters can use Spanish Lavender with roasted meats). L. angustofolia is the better lavender for sweet things & baked goods. Only the flower is tasty by the way, the leaves generally aren't even good for tea.

It's hard to find enough household uses for lavender if you are growing even a small handful of clumps, as they produce scads of flowers over a very long season. One way to use a handful of it all at once is to put the flower-heads in a string-bag along with leaves of garden mints, beebalms, or rosemary, pull the string tight, & add it to the end of the laundry cycle & then into the clothes drier, for fresh laundry that'll smell good enough to eat. A bag of herbs can also be used like a big tea-bag to scent a warm bath. Lavender flowers can also just be used to scent a room. One large bag of lavender & rosemary hanging in the laundry room turned out to be too overwhelming; it was rather quickly banished to outer porch. Relatively small amounts in bouquets is all it takes to get a pleasing scent throughout a room.


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