Plant Profile: Scents of Calm
Scents of Calm
Photographed and written by Debby Larsen
Lavender seduces the senses with both color and fragrance. Under its fragrant façade lies a drought-tolerant perennial that is well suited to desert climes.
Lavender (Lavandula) is one of the oldest known herbs. This Mediterranean native dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who grew the plant for medicinal uses. From small to tall, there are more than 400 varieties of lavender, prized for their color and fragrance.
It often is used in soaps, candles and essential oils, and is reputed to aid relaxation.
Although lavender evokes images of fields in Southern France, that doesn’t keep it from thriving under the hot desert sun. Arizona’s arid climate and rocky soils suit lavender well. Brought to North America in Colonial times, lavender had many uses — one of the earliest of which was “strewing,” scattering lavender sprigs on the floor to mask odor and deter insects.
The plant’s attributes include attractive gray foliage, graceful blue flower stalks and, of course, that alluring scent. It is drought resistant once established. Deer and rabbits will stay away, but butterflies and beneficial pollinators love it.
In the low desert, lavender blooms from late spring to early summer. The best time to harvest it is early in the day. Cut the flower stalks and gather a bundle (called wands) about two inches thick and secure with a rubber band. Hang upside down in a cool, dark place. This method ensures that the stems stay straight and the essential oils remain in the flowers.
Lavenders have more prolific blooms when grown in full sun, but avoid west-facing walls due to reflected heat. The rocky, alkaline soils of the desert are similar to lavender’s native Mediterranean habitat. Improved soils will work provided they are well drained. Prune back by one third to rejuvenate plants in the spring.
Some lavenders have culinary uses, including flavoring for beverages, butter, sugar and syrups. It often is part of an herb blend called herbes de Provence, along with others such as savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano.
The key to growing lavender successfully is knowing which variety is right for your particular space. English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most recognized type. It is early to bloom and has long stems of dark blue flowers and is cold hardy. This variety prefers higher elevations.
Lavandins (Lavandula x intermedia) are hybrids of English lavender and are prized for their intensely fragrant blooms. Lavandins have long gray leaves, twice or more the size of L. angustifolias. They also grow much larger and faster and are more adept at dealing with heat.
Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) is distinguished by its unique pineapple-shaped, winged blooms in purple, pink and white. Unlike the elongated bloom spikes of English lavender, this one has short, squat flower heads. This lavender is more tolerant of the heat. Allowing the lavender’s soil to dry out is essential to prevent root rot. Planting is best done in fall and winter, so roots develop before summer comes. High heat and our region’s monsoon rains often put flowering Arizona lavenders on hold. HG
Spanish Lavender: “Blueberry Ruffles”
This newer selection to the “Ruffles” series is popular for its compact growing habit and striking violet-blue flowers. When in full bloom, the plant may appear to be more flowers than foliage.
English Lavender: “Super Blue”
The English variety is the most commonly recognized type of lavender. Originating in Northeast Spain, it is the most cold hardy. The flowers spikes typically are four inches long and are used fresh as well as dried.