Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Devotion To Lavender

"Here’s your sweet lavender
sixteen sprigs a penny
that you’ll find my ladies
will smell as sweet as any."

-Lavender Vendor's Call, England, 18th Century

A brief look about my house today turned up a bottle of "Relaxing Lavender Huile De Bain" (bath oil with a sprig of lavender) and a jar of "Sleep Soothing Milk Soak" (with lavender) by my wife's bath.  Not only that, she has three large terra cotta pots of lavender on the patio.  And today, while away visiting her mother, she called to request that I transplant one sorry-looking lavender from a spot where it gets too much water to another.

"What is this devotion to lavender?", I wondered.  A little research was in order.

I found a book still on her shelf that I gave her about 20 years ago, Penhaligon's Scented Treasury Of Verse And Prose: The Language of Flowers.  Before I tell you what I discovered, I must explain.

Back in the old days, about 50 years ago, flowers meant something.  They were symbols of emotion and intent.  On Mother's Day before we went to church, my mom would pin a red rose bud on my lapel or shirt with a hat pin (sometimes accidentally sticking me) to indicate that she was still alive.  Eventually, she wore a white rose saying that her mother had died.  Daisies meant innocence.  Roses meant love.  Lilies meant purity.  Violets meant modesty.  So, for example, the phrase "a shrinking violet" referred to a very shy person.  If you intended to give someone a bouquet, you'd better know what the flowers meant if you wanted to get your message straight.

Nowadays, suitors unwittingly give their prom dates corsages of carnations meaning "Alas, my poor heart!", refusal or disdain.  For them it's all over before it's started.  How sad.

Anyway, back to the book.  Upon opening it, I found a purple ribbon marking the page about lavender, and it is said to mean...distrust!  "No wonder she keeps checking up on me," I thought.  Surely, that can't be correct.  Looking for a better meaning, I found another that I liked:  devotion.  That's much better.

To make sure that her devotion will continue and distrust be banished, I promptly transplanted her drowning lavender.  Furthermore, I will continue to be responsible, work hard, and feed the cats while she's gone.

By now, your curiosity about lavender might be piqued, so I'll tell you more.

Lavender is a member of the Lamiaceae family (mints, etc), mostly native to the Old World around the Mediterranean region - Southern Europe, North Africa.  The genus is properly Lavandula (pronounced "lav-AN-dew-lah"), having to do with washing.  I'm pretty sure that women picked it, smelled it, liked the fragrance, threw sprigs in their baths, and the name came later.

The devotion to lavender grew.  Romans (presumably women) used it to disinfect their bath water, and surely carried it with them as they traveled with their legions.  Somewhere along the line, men came to realize that "if she's happy, (and she, and she, and she) then I'm happy", and finally began marketing it.  To this day, you'll find acres upon acres of lavender growing around the world, especially in France, to provide an essential ingredient of perfumes, bath salts, candles, soaps and heuiles de bain.

Lavender oil is said to possess various medicinal properties, especially promoting relaxation.  As with any medicinal herb, use with caution.

For culinary purposes, lavender is used in cooking oils, vinegars, jellies, cookies and other baked goods.  You can also simmer lavender on the stove to scent the room.

Lavender stems, leaves, buds, and flowers contain essential oils, but in different concentrations.  Fresh or dry, all are useful.  Lavender keeps its fragrance for a long time.

I expect you are wanting lavender right now to enhance your life: perhaps to grow in your garden, to scent your bath, to lay upon your pillow, to make flower arrangements, to dry for potpourris, to send your husband a mixed message.  Whatever your purpose, you can grow it yourself.  It's not difficult.

If you care which lavender to grow, there are several species, hybrids and cultivars.  They all grow like short bushes, produce blue flowers and smell great.

Lavender is generally hardy in USDA climate zones 5 through 8.  It prefers full sun and well-drained soils with pH ranging from 6.6 to 7.8.  Good air circulation is essential.  For more precise advice, take a soil sample to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service Office.  You may pay a small fee.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep.  Add enough soil to raise the bed at least 4" above the surrounding ground level. This will help to promote good drainage. Compost may be incorporated into the soil.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants 24" to 36" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container.  Water the plants in the pots, then drain.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Plant lavender with other plants having similar cultural requirements.  Fertilize sparingly and allow soil to dry between watering.  The greatest cause of failure is over-watering.

Lavender's silvery-green leaves are fragrant and enchanting.  If your plants never bloomed, you should be satisfied.  But when lavender blooms, you will enjoy the color and fragrance.  The best fragrance is from the flowers.  Lavender can be grown as low hedges in borders and knot-gardens.  They do well among mixed perennials and annuals. 

Some native soils may not be hospitable to lavender, but the soils in container gardens can be very easily adjusted.  Start with a good grade of peat-based professional potting soil mix.  Adjust soil pH, if necessary.

Clip lavender about mid-morning when dew has dried.  Choose sprigs with flower buds just about to open.  Hang them upside down in a warm, dry area.  The sprigs should dry within a week, then store them in a box.  If you intend to use lavender for cooking, put the sprigs in a plastic bag and refrigerate.

With such a history, and so many uses for lavender, you should include it in your garden.  I expect you'll become a devotee before long.

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