After years of trying many different varieties, we have found that the best types of lavender for growing in the hot, humid south are ‘provence’ and ‘sweet.’ Technically, they are lavandins, a class of lavender hybrids whose parentage provides much greater heat tolerance. Lavandins are grown commercially in France, where summers are hot (but not as humid). ‘Provence’ is an especially good strain of commercial lavandin because it has a high essential oil content, robust growth and two flushes of bloom (one in early summer, one in late summer). ‘Sweet’ lavender is slightly less pure in scent, but is especially well-adapted to the southern climate. Lavender has a wonderfully distinctive fresh, exquisite fragrance. Essential oils of French and English lavenders are slightly different, with the English commanding a higher price. Many aromatherapy products use the French because it is more readily available, but most of us can not tell the difference. We are fortunate that in this climate, on any given day of the year, one can brush the foliage of lavender and experience the immediate pleasures of its irresistible fragrance. Now that’s aromatherapy!
Proper Growing Conditions
Lavender has earned a reputation for being tricky to maintain in the Lowcountry, but it is possible to grow beautiful, healthy plants if you can provide them with the proper growing conditions:
- Full Sun. Lavender may grow for a while in only half a day, but ultimately the inevitable combination of heat and moisture (be it rain or heavy humidity) will cause disease.
- Excellent Drainage. This means there should be no standing water. Ever. If planted in the ground, sandy soil is best. A raised bed is ideal. If not in a raised bed, plant the lavender slightly above ground level on a mound of soil. This will keep the foliage dry as well as enhancing drainage. In a pot, use a pro-quality peat-based mix with perlite. Composted pine bark is not recommended by itself as a medium for potted lavender. You can add Charleston County compost (available at the Bees Ferry and Romney St. landfills) to composted pine bark or to Sunshine Mix™. Compost provides excellent drainage and a slightly alkaline ph.
- Air Circulation. Lavender needs to have 360° of open air around it. In a mixed planting, surround it with a low-growing companion such as thyme. Avoid letting the foliage of other plants (including weeds) come in contact with the lavender. The corner of a raised bed would be an ideal placement. Allow 3 feet between plants. Think about ways you have seen lavender photographed— lining a walk in England (provides good circulation), or covering a hillside in France (ideal for circulation and drainage). Growing lavender in a large urn or pot is often the best solution for many gardeners in the United States.
- Alkaline Soil. Soil with a ph greater than 7 is considered alkaline. The areas in France and England that are so well-known for glorious lavender have alkaline soil. This higher ph actually helps prevent fungus and other diseases from attacking lavender (and some other herbs as well). Fortunately for gardeners, manipulating soil ph is easy: add ground limestone to the soil, plant next to a concrete path or even in a concrete block, or amend the soil with ground oyster shell. These are all simple ways to provide the necessary alkalinity to the plants.
- Pruning. Make sure to prune back all dead branches and winter-burned growth after danger of frost has passed. Cut back to where you see new growth beginning to sprout. This may seem drastic, but your plant will do better in the long run if you prune it on a regular basis! In the summer, you may need to prune a few branches from the center of the plant to increase air circulation.
Uses for Lavender
- Culinary. While not usually thought of in culinary terms, lavender is surprisingly delicious in both sweet and savory dishes. On the grill with lamb or chicken, in a marinade for pork, or as a flavoring in herbal vinegar, the leaves have an aromatic pungency similar in some ways to rosemary, yet very distinctive. Also like rosemary, a little goes a long way. In sweet dishes the leaves and the flowers can be used. Lavender sugar, made by burying the lavender in sugar for a few days, is delicious on strawberries, in hot tea, in cakes, or ice cream. A lavender syrup can be used to make lavender sorbet, or sprinkled on fruit salad or pound cake.
- Aromatherapy. Lavender essential oil (derived mainly from the flowers, but sometimes from the leaves) is one of the top 10 aromatherapy oils because of its many practical applications. It is used to alleviate headaches, help the restless fall asleep, soothe psychological stress (thereby uplifting the spirits), treat burns and scratches (it has proven antibacterial qualities), relieve symptoms of PMS, and soothe irritated skin— all while smelling heavenly. For the fastidious housekeeper lavender is used in sachets to repel moths and to scent the linens.
Varieties of Lavender
Goodwin Creek Lavender
(Lavendula heterophylla), This cultivar is a hybrid of French lavender which Goodwin Creek discovered. It blooms throughout the summer and may even bloom in the winter in mild climates. ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ and French lavender are the best choices for a winter blooming indoor lavender. The silvery toothed foliage is very attractive and the corollas are deep purple.
(Lavendula pinnata), a tender perennial when planted in a protected spot. Unlike the other lavenders, it blooms constantly from spring to frost. You can even bring this one inside and it will bloom happily throughout the winter, as long as it has plenty of sun. Its silvery-green, lacey foliage and profusion of bright blue blossoms make it a great accent plant, either in a pot or in a bed.
(Lavandula x intermedia ‘Provence’) a perennial, is a great, hardy variety for the Lowcountry, and generally blooms twice a year, spring and fall. Provence lavender is cultivated in France for the perfume and essential oil trade, making it one of the more sought after varieties here. It is very important to provide this plant with excellent drainage and air circulation.
Abriallii A strong plant and really heavy bloomer, but with short inflorescences (outstanding here last spring).
Grappenhall (Lavandula x intermedia cv.) An amazingly robust plant with larger leaves, faster growth and NO disease problems in our humid climate!
(Lavandula heterophylla) a perennial, is a fast, easy grower, with excellent fragrance. Its blooming season, generally spring and early summer, can be extended somewhat by deadheading. When properly cared for, these plants can get to be several feet across and 2-3 feet high.
(Lavandula stoechas) a perennial, was grown by the ancient Romans. In addition to being one of the earliest bloomers and possessing very unique blossoms, it has an excellent fragrance. It will be a stand-out no matter where you plant it.
(Lavandula dentata, green and gray forms) a tender perennial, is a good choice for topiaries and for growing indoors where you can enjoy its wonderful fragrance year round.