Lavender Fields Forever
Yesterday I made a little tussie mussie of lavender and rosebuds for a dear friend going through a tough time and felt my own spirits lift. I find the scent of lavender refreshing, brisk and aromatic rather than florally fragrant, cutting briskly through more cloying perfumes in mixed arrangements. The variety I was cutting was Grosso, a classic variety whose sun warmed scent evokes marvelous memories of the lavender fields of Provence. When I was studying in Italy, friends took me to work on a small French farm near Aix en Provence. In summer, we picked cherries and lavender. In fall, we returned to help with the grape harvest, including some rather lively drinking games featuring local wine and lots of singing of challenge songs (miss a word or line and you have to take a drink).
Back then, lavender, cherries, and grapes were harvested by hand, at least on modest family farms. Lavender was bundled and hand tied in the field. It was hot, back breaking work (and especially unnerving for the kid who went ahead whacking each plant with a stick to chase out lurking adders), but the thought of lunch time kept us going. At midday, the farmer built a small fire against the low stone wall that bound the fields. Over hastily gathered handfuls of wild rosemary, thyme and sage, we grilled fresh sausages which we ate with local bread. After lunch, we walked home along hot, dusty roads lined with red poppies and smoky blue lavender fields that rolled on forever, reflecting the flat blue sky. Both shimmered with heat. Everyone napped in the ancient stone farm house, cool and still, where the smells of lavender scented sheets mingled with the herbal smoke that clung to hair and clothing. After that, we gathered ember red cherries until evening, scrambling up the trees on stout ladders and dangling cherry twin sets over our ears like edible jewelry.
Of Magpies And Donkeys
Grape harvesting was less athletic but far more picturesque. We pickers sat on upturned buckets, snipping off clusters with sharp little clippers and dropping them gently into big baskets. Several small boys ran barefoot through the dust between the rows, taking full baskets and leaving empty ones. They loaded the grapes into the larger panniers of two donkeys, both sporting straw hats with holes cut out for their big ears. Black and white magpies flew down to steal grapes (and our shiny hand clippers, if we were careless). Somehow, I doubt whether any harvest, however local, is still quite as enchanting as that, even in France, and I’m grateful for such delicious memories.
While the maritime Northwest is definitely not the South of France, we can grow lavender quite well here, as long as we choose our spot with care. Siting is especially important in coastal areas, where the morning marine layer can cast a cloudy pall over even sunny gardens; in such places, placing lavender near a gravel path or concrete patio will help thanks to the reflected heat. Give lavender as much sun as you can manage, and make sure the drainage is excellent as well, for like most hardy herbs, lavender prefers open, sandy or loamy soils over soggy clay. In richer soils, they often grow too quickly, becoming floppy and open, and the essential oils will be diluted, thus less potent. To avoid this, do not feed lavenders at all and don’t water them once they’re established.
Trim A Little, Not A Lot
To keep lavenders from getting leggy, give them a lean, dry situation and trim the stems back a bit each summer. Late July is a good time for this with early blooming varieties, or August for later bloomers. Don’t cut back hard into bare stems, because old wood will not reliably grow back. Instead, remove spent bloom stalks along with about 25-30% of the leafy part of each stem.
In France, most commercial lavender is Lavandula x media, a cultivated strain of wild lavenders with especially intense fragrance. These do best in regions with fierce summer heat and warm nights. They don’t perform outstandingly in my cool,coastal part of the Northwest, but that’s not really a problem. In gardening terms, the most fragrant lavenders are not always the handsomest.
Sturdy Lavenders For The PNW
One of my favorite lavenders is Lavandula angustifolia Fred Boutin, a big guy (to 3 feet) with extra-long internodes. Fred’s sturdy stems are terrific for braiding into lavender wands and woven ribbon balls. Fred is also one of the best lavenders for hedging, remaining shapely into middle age and enjoying a longer lifespan than usual. Hidcote lavender is considered a classic choice for lower hedges. The true Hidcote is a compact (to 1 foot) subshrub with dense grey foliage, its lilac flowers set off by dark purple calyces (false petals at the base of the florets). The real thing is a fine plant, but sadly, many plants sold as Hidcote are seedlings instead of cutting-grown clones. When you buy named lavenders, look at the flats carefully. If all the plants look the same in youth, they will remain similar into maturity. Many lavender species are variable (L. angustifolia has several dozen named selections), so their seedlings may be green or grey, tall or short, with flowers in any shade of lavender to pink or even white.
French or Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas) has large flower heads with colorful bracts that make a showy display in summer. Most flower in purple or pink, but white forms are occasionally available. They’re a bit more tender in cool summer inland gardens but perform brilliantly in sunny urban or beach gardens. I’m quite fine of pine scented green lavender (Lavandula viridis), with grass green foliage and jade green flowers with an intense, spicy scent. These tender little shrubs often vanish in a hard winter but self sow readily in grit or gravel paths. The seedlings grow quickly into foot-tall replacements that fill the air with penetrating fragrance.
Lavender In The Kitchen
In the kitchen, lavender can be quite versatile, leaping from lemonade, sorbet, and shortbreads to savory marinades, spicy rubs for grilled fish or fowl, and salad dressings. In France, peach jam is spunky with lavender blossoms, and lavender sorbet makes an intriguing palate cleanser between courses. Gather lavender flowers just as the buds are opening and dry them on the stem in a dim, dark place until crisp. Remove the chaff by blowing gently on a handful, then experiment to see what tastes best to you.
For creamy lavender honey, puree 1 tablespoon crushed dried lavender with 1 cup honey and 2 tablespoons honeycomb in a food processor. To make fragrant lavender sugar, grind 1 cup sugar with 1 tablespoon of dried lavender in a food processor, then store in a closed container for 2-3 weeks. Make lavender honey butter by mashing 1/2 cup unsalted butter with 2 tablespoons honey and 1 teaspoon crushed dried lavender.
Herbs de Provence
This neo-classic herb combination adds sparkle to vegetables, chicken, grilled fish, or soups and stews. Vary ingredients and proportions as French cooks do, adding or substituting dried orange zest, tarragon, sage, or mint. If using fresh herbs, bake in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet at 225 degrees F. until barely crisp (15-20 minutes).
2 tablespoons dried lavender
2 tablespoons dried rosemary
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried lemon zest
Bend well and store in tightly closed glass jar out of direct sunlight. Makes about 2/3 cup.
Fresh Lavender Lemonade
2 tablespoons fresh lavender florets
1 quart lemonade
4 lavender sprigs
1 organic lemon, sliced thinly
Put lavender in a small saucepan, pour 1 cup boiling water over it and cover. Let steep 20 minutes, strain (a tea strainer works great) and add to lemonade. Pour into glasses over ice, garnished with lavender sprigs and a lemon slice. Serves four.
Lavender and Rosemary Iced Tea
2 teaspoons fresh lavender florets
2 teaspoons stemmed fresh rosemary
1 quart iced tea (your favorite)
4 sprigs mint
Put lavender and rosemary in a small saucepan, pour 1 cup boiling water over them and cover. Let steep 20 minutes, strain (a tea strainer works great) and add to iced tea. Pour into glasses over ice, garnished with mint sprigs. Serves four.