Pretty in purple
WITH the wet and chilly weather that much of the country has suffered during the past few months, it may be difficult to imagine fields of lavender shimmering purple in the sunshine, their evocative scent hanging in heavy summer air. You’ll need to think about it soon, however, if you hanker after lavender to edge a parterre, encircle a rose garden or augment a flower border. You may want to plant lavender by your back door for draping washing, a charming image that harks back to Victorian gardening books.
Native to Mediterranean regions, but also occurring naturally in North Africa, the Middle East and India, lavender loves the alkaline, well-drained limestone soils and the hot and dry climate of the south of France. The purple fields of lavender that cover the hillsides and plains of Provence attract hordes of tourists with their cameras in July. Fields are stripped in early August and oil presses in co-operatives spring into action.
You’ll find lavender will grow happily in richer soils as long as air circulation is excellent and the plants are not expected to cope with summer humidity. Frost and snow present no problem, making lavender a perfect companions for roses and irises. The soft greys and intense blues of lavender weaving through a border of flowering perennials, in the company of clouds of scented pink roses, all edged with ribbons of iris, is one of the romantic images of high summer.
The 40-odd species in the lavender genus belong to the mint family (Lamiaceae), have square stems, flower spikes and leaves rich in fragrant oils; not surprisingly, some species can become a little rampant.
The most common species, Lavandula angustifolia — the easiest to source and to grow, bearing misty, mid-blue spikes above grey foliage — is the source of most lavender oil. Many of the most exciting varieties have been cultivated from this species. The American gardener Lawrence Johnston found a deep purple-flowering variety in the hills behind his house, near Menton on the Cote d’Azur, and collected seed to create the much-loved variety we now call ‘Hidcote’. You can see it at Hidcote Manor, his large garden in Gloucestershire, these days beautifully cared for by Britain’s National Trust. Lavandula angustifolia ‘Egerton Blue’ is valued for its oil; the richly hued ‘Munstead’, ‘Twickel Purple’ and ‘Hidcote’ are favoured for drying. The pink ‘Rosea’ and the purple ‘Folgate’ are laterflowering. For drying, for use in sachets and pot pourri, pick the spikes before they start to fade.
Lavandula x intermedia ‘Seal’, a tallgrowing variety of the hybrid between the angustifolia and latifolia species, is also used for drying. The smaller L. x intermedia ‘Miss Donnington’ is popular for edging flower borders or herb gardens; you might employ it to create a maze or a parterre. But you don’t have to clip your lavender into straight-topped edges: some gardeners prefer wave hedges of lavender, so that if one plant dies the gap left is not too obvious.
The early-season flowering L. stoechas, which is described in Roman texts, is also grown for its oil, used in room fresheners and insecticides, although it has become a nuisance in some parts of Australia, declared a noxious weed in some states. The varieties ‘Winter Lace’, a soft to deep blue, and ‘Violet Lace’, with masses of purple flowers, are safer, more compact varieties. And plant Lavandula x intermedia ‘Yuulong’ and ‘Grosso,’ along with L. allardii and L. dentata var. candicans, to cut for arrangements of fresh lavender. WEall admire our botanical artists, several of whom are world acclaimed, with their work collected in galleries and florilegiums.There’s still time to catch The Eternal Order in Nature: The Science of Botanical Illustration, an exhibition that runs until August 7 at Domain House Gallery, Dallas Brooks Drive, South Yarra, in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. 10am to 5pm daily (Wed to 8pm). Entry is by gold coin and works are for sale. More: www.theeternalorderinnature.com
Sydney’s Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens are staging an exhibition of photographs from Britain’s International Garden Photographer of the Year competition, in which two Australians Claire Takacs and Debbie Hartley, won prizes. The exhibition, from August 11 to 28, will feature more than 90 photographs, including the winners. The inspiring winning entries from the recently judged first Australian Garden Photographs Exhibition, organised by the Friends of the Botanic Gardens, will also be on show. The exhibition is on daily from 10am to 4pm at the Lion Gate Lodge, Royal Botanic Gardens, Mrs Macquarie’s Road, Sydney. There is an entry fee. Follow daily garden tips and tricks on twitter.com/hollykerforsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Seasons in My House and Garden, is out now.
It’s almost time to start planting lavender for next summer