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In love with lavender

Who can resist this showy herb? It's easy to grow, adores our Mediterranean climate and is bound to attract you with its many charms: fragrance, color, even flavor.

May 01, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Most of us know the scent of lavender from soap. Putting the best and strongest flower smells in cleaners is such an old practice that it gave lavender its name: It comes from the Latin lavare -- to wash. But with all due respect to lavender's preeminence in antiquity's laundry room, and to its continuing glory in English toiletries, it merits pointing out that there is another way to enjoy it. Grow it. Grow a lot of it. No plant is better suited to California gardens than this fragrant beauty.

Or make that beauties. There are more than 20 species of lavender and dozens of cultivars. They can come big, medium or small, from the size of a basketball to a 5-foot-high bush. The leaves can go from gray-green to silver. They can be simple or lacy and fringed. The flowers can be white to pink to pale lavender to cornflower blue and royal purple.

While freezing temperatures, rain and humidity make many varieties of lavender tricky to grow in most of the country, we in Los Angeles can grow all of them. Easily. Lavender comes from the Mediterranean, making Southern California a home away from home.

The elegant, gray-green foliage is not just for show. It is, says Ellen Zagory, director of horticulture at the UC Davis Arboretum, the plant's way of adapting to drought. "The silver that we see in the leaves is actually hairs," she says. "It provides a barrier to water loss as well as reflecting heat."

Strictly speaking, lavender is an herb. But it is more realistic, size-wise, to think of it as a shrub. Outside some dwarf lavenders, most are so vigorous that they will stand a foot tall their first year and be waist-high within three years. These shrubs can be run together as a tightly pruned hedge, a wild and woolly flower bed or as accent plants.

The herb's tendency to turn into a shrub, to become woody, is seen as a flaw by some. To keep the tight, round shape, one needs to keep the gnarly wooden trunks to a minimum by pruning the new growth back to just above the wood every year. Lavender farmers do this. In France, there are even lavender combines. While such pruning looks brutal, Zagory says that cutting back the plant can prolong its life from approximately five years to 10.

Jim Becker, the Oregon nurseryman behind the variety 'Goodwin Creek Grey,' prefers lavender left to develop a more disheveled, romantic form. "After they've flowered, we go in and neaten them up." He wonders if the professional shear doesn't even shorten the life. He has plants that have exceeded the ripe old age of 20.

The subject of lavender longevity is the floral equivalent of dog years: an inexact science. Jan Smithen, for 18 years the teacher of the Los Angeles County Arboretum's Fanatic Gardener class, says that, in her experience, even with dutiful pruning, six years is good going.

You need to work up the courage to shear the plant if you want to dry the flowers. They must be taken when the flowers are no more than one third open, says Pescadero lavender farmer Susan Ditz, proprietor of Rancho Alegre. "That's peak. There are a lot of people who can't bear to cut all the flowers. I say: 'Fine, do some selective cutting.' "

The snip should be made where the stem meets the first leaf. (For fresh-cut flower arrangements in water, by all means take some foliage.) Ditz recommends cutting lavender for drying only after the morning dew has dried, then knotting the wands in bundles of no more than 40 or 50. More and you will run into mildew problems, she says. The bundles should be banded, a hook run through the band, and hung upside down in a cool, dry cupboard for about a month. They should not be dried in the sun, or they'll fade.

If you'd rather leave the flowers on the plant, bees and butterflies will thank you. Look closely at lavender flowers and you will see little nectar factories. It seems likely that the essential oil that makes lavender so fragrant to us is like a dinner bell to them. A mature lavender hedge can become quite a scene. The basking skippers attract bug-eating birds, which in turn attract cats, which attract dogs.

Curiously, hummingbirds, those quick and clicking aesthetes of the garden, seem most drawn to lavenders with little or no scent but high, kooky beauty: the electric blue, candelabra-shaped Canary Island varieties.

These, along with the French lavenders, bloom almost continuously here. English only seems to. It sneaks a crafty nap midwinter, which may account for the delicious intensity of its scent every spring. The relatively odorless Spanish lavenders refuse to be cajoled by the heat and bloom only once.

Deadheading the English and French varieties is something that can make you feel at once virtuous and mellow. It will force new blooms from lower down the stem, and an afternoon spent inhaling the scent of lavender is the floral equivalent of Prozac.

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