Lavender is often quoted as a plant that’s particularly good for use in horticultural therapy. As a plant rich in sensory properties and with its attractive, fragrant purplish flowers and soft grey green foliage, it’s easy to see why. But lots of plants have similar properties, so what makes lavender so special?
A key feature of lavender is without doubt its scent, which is so distinct and familiar. It is this scent which causes us to feel calmer, less anxious and sometimes sleepy. This has been proven scientifically and works through the olfactory receptors in a way that is not yet fully understood*.
While the plant is actually producing these scented chemicals to deter pests, we make use of them by using lavender in essential oils and perfumes. It's why, for example, we put dried lavender in bags to place with our clothes or under our pillows at night to promote sleep. While quite a few plants contain linalool, its main active constituent, lavender has it in a most attractive form.
Lavender is also appealing visually. With its soft silvery foliage topped with dense flower spikes, it comes in different shades of colour - from white or pink to purple or blue.
While lavender is thought to have originated in India, we often think of it as a Mediterranean plant as well as English or French too! English lavender is Lavandula angustifolia or L.x intermedia and are the hardiest lavenders, with popular cultivars being Munstead and Hidcote Giant, suggesting English country gardens. French lavenders, cultivars of Lavandula stoechas, are distinct in having large fine petals or ‘ears’ at the top of the flower spike.
Lavenders are reasonably easy to grow. Lavandula stoechas may need favourable conditions to survive our winters as they don't like to be cold and wet. Lavenders prefer well drained soil in a sunny position and are ideal in containers or raised beds where they have a chance to dry out between waterings.
They are best planted in spring and can be kept in shape by pruning, best done after flowering, but also possible in spring as lavender flowers on this year’s growth. It is best to avoid cutting back into woody growth as the plant may not produce new growth from that. Softwood and semi-ripe cuttings can be taken during the summer and hardwood cuttings later in the year. This is a great way to increase your stock if you are planning to grow enough for a low hedge.
Another feature of lavender that makes it popular in gardens is the way it attracts insects like bees and hoverflies. This is clearly good for the environment as well as interesting for us all to watch too.
It may be a little cold to plant lavender during the winter but if you are considering some lavender for your garden, it can be a good time to start looking at the different varieties available and start planning for a spring planting.
If you cut back your lavender after it has flowered and collect the cuttings, you can use the dried flowers. They can be tied into posies or the tiny flowers can be removed from the stem and made into lavender bags by placing some in the centre of a small square piece of cloth. The corners are then lifted and a cord tied around to keep it in place.
The flowers can also be used to flavour cakes, biscuits, and drinks.