Monty Don: Purple reigns, why lavender has such a strong hold on our senses

It seems curious that lavender, which in reality is a pretty but unexceptional shrub, should have such a strong hold on our senses. Few plants evoke so many things so powerfully.

It labels and defines a colour, even though, on inspection, lavender comes in lots of shades from dark purple to white. It colours a whole mood or atmosphere of gentle if not genteel refinement and prettiness and, above all, it evokes a fragrance that is unique.

The scent released when you crumble a few of the tiny flowers in your fingers will trigger a chain of evocations that can be provoked by nothing else.


Lavender is the ideal plant for a pot, architectural, resistant to almost total neglect and long-lasting

Above all, tied in with the sheer beauty of its fragrance, it is a healing plant 'of especial use' as one Tudor writer noted, 'for all the griefes and pains of the head and heart'. It is supposed to be one of the most ancient of all manufactured perfumes, with lavender water mentioned in 12thcentury literature.

We know that the Romans added it to their baths, giving it the name 'lavendula' which comes from lavare, to wash. Certainly, a few drops of lavender oil added to your bath seem to induce an extra restfulness.

In the 16th and 17th centuries it was a central ingredient of the apothecary's medicine chest and is still used today to ease an almost encyclopaedic range of ills, from arthritis and insomnia to palpitations and burns.

Twice I saw lavender last summer that made me view it anew. The first time was in Provence, in the garden of a newly converted farmhouse.

It was a building site, but the driveway was flanked with a long grid of lavender bushes, neatly clipped, six deep on either side and as dramatic and stark as stones set on a sandy beach. The second was over a thousand miles north, in Norfolk.

Fifty acres of pulsing violet lavender bushes, in full flower, lit by a setting sun that skimmed across the fields like a pebble across the waves.

Lavender in gardens tends either to be a loose hedge or a single plant whose softness is part of an almost archetypal prettiness.

My granny would cut the flowers and dry them in the airing cupboard before putting them in little muslin bags, stitched together with lavender cotton.

She then put them in her drawer full of billowing directoire knickers. I could not bring myself to enquire what they actually did, but there you have the essence of English garden lavender: beautiful, useful, sanitising and little-old-ladyish.

It is curious how this most Mediterranean of plants has become so English, so perfectly suited to tea on the Edwardian lawn and a hazy patrician charm.

The scent released when you crumble a few of the tiny flowers in your fingers will trigger a chain of evocations that can be provoked by nothing else

Some of this is simply the glaucal shimmer of its tiny leaves matched with the fuzz of flowers hovering on their spikes that associates well with any pastel colours.

It is also a robust and very tolerant plant. Ideally it likes full sun, alkaline soil and good drainage, and, like rosemary, hates sitting dormant in cold water. In summer it will respond to some watering and I have lost plants in pots through underwatering.

It also lives for ages, developing branches like a blacksmith's forearms, its flowers sparser and sparser in proportion to the woody growth. The secret of keeping a lavender bush in good shape is to clip it to shape in spring, but not cutting into the old wood, or it may not survive.

Then, after it has flowered, cut back to the leaves with perhaps a third trim in October to keep the shape. With this treatment it will hold a tight ball well and is a much cheaper and quicker-growing alternative to box if you have a very sunny, well-drained site.

Like nearly everything in a garden, lavender is never simply itself. There is always a qualification to measure what sort of self it is, so there are different types, different varieties and different colours to choose or confuse.

But I will keep it simple.

Lavandula angustifolia is common or English lavender. It has the familiar mauve spikes of flower and will grow to a height and spread of about 3ft. There is a white form, L. angustifolia 'Alba', which does not grow quite so tall, and L. a.'Nana Alba'  -  like all plants with nana and alba in their name, it is white and very small.

L. a. 'Rosea' has pink flowers, as does L. a. </cite>'Jean Davis'. But pink lavender is like white chocolate  -  perfectly nice but somehow not perfectly right.

The two most common varieties are L.a. 'Munstead' and L.a.'Hidcote'. 'Hidcote' is a deeper mauve and a bit more vigorous than the paler, bluer, faster growing 'Munstead', but both make good hedging plants.

Lavandula lanata, or woolly lavender, makes a dome of soft woolly leaves, which then throws up spikes twice as high again, topped with purple flowers. Lavandula stoechas, or French lavender, has unusual mauve bracts on top of the flower spikes and very narrow leaves that grow markedly up the stems.

L. dentata has leaves that are prettily ribbed or crimped and the flowers are also topped with bracts, although of a paler, blue colour. It is not entirely hardy so needs protecting during a cold winter or bringing indoors.

Lavandula latifolia is an upright species, with broader leaves, and is crossed with L. angustifolia to make Lavandula x intermedia, which is sometimes known as Old English lavender, and this has produced perhaps the biggest type of lavender you can buy called 'Grappenhall'.

All the intermedias will clip to a good, rounded shape and self-seed in and around gardens, giving rise to suggestions of 'wild' plants.

Maybe lavender will make apothecaries of us all yet, but I suspect its value in the garden is primarily visual.

The combination of toughness and softness and associations with summer afternoons and a benevolent sunshine that it carries with it, improves any garden.

It is the ideal plant for a pot, architectural, resistant to almost total neglect and long-lasting.

  • Lavender will grow from seed as well as take easily from cuttings. Cuttings are best taken either from non-flowering stems as softwood cuttings in May, or as semi-hardwood cuttings in late summer from new growth. Overwinter the rooted cuttings in a cold greenhouse or cold frame and plant out in spring.
  •  Lavender is prone to cuckoo spit, the white frothy liquid caused by the immature nymph stage of froghoppers. It does little harm and the best way to get rid of it is to spray with water. If the weather is particularly wet, you may get grey mould or botrytis. Cut back any affected bits and burn them. 
  • When planting lavender in pots, mix horticultural grit or perlite into the potting compost at a ratio of at least 25 per cent, and 50:50 would do no harm. Make sure the pot is not sitting in a puddle of water, especially during winter, when the compost should be allowed to almost completely dry out. Begin to water it gradually as new growth appears. 
  • Dry lavender flowers by cutting the stems just as the flowers open and lie them on open trays or hang upside down in bunches. Do not try to dry them too fast.


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