McIntyre: Lovely, versatile lavender

University of Idaho Master GardenerJuly 11, 2013 

Herbs have been cultivated and used in different cultures throughout the ages. They heal the body and mind, surround us with sweet, alluring and calming scents, flavor our foods and provide us with stories of folklore and magic.

Lavender evokes the calm of my spirit and is my favorite of all the herbs.

Wandering Lakeside Lavender Farm during the annual festival in mid-July, is like walking in heaven. The amethyst blossom rows are visually stunning. The sweet fragrance in the air is alluring and the sound of buzzing bees is surprisingly soothing. On the lavender farm, my life-long fear of bees disappeared forever.

Depending on the species or cultivar, lavender produces 1- to 2-foot-long spikes of purple, blue-violet, pink and white flowers in mid-summer. Two of my favorite English lavender cultivars are Grosso, an English hybrid often referred to as a Lavandin, and Melissa, a traditional garden variety that produces pale pink flowers.

Grosso stems can reach 20 inches and the blossoms stay fragrant for years, making them perfect for dried bouquets. I have a large bunch I handpicked three years ago, hung dry upside down, to keep the blossoms from drooping. Set in a vase, they are still as fragrant as they day I picked them. My husband has a bundle hanging in his office too.

Standing tall at 24 inches, Melissa's delicate pink flowers bloom early in summer and are a lovely contrast to the violet depth of Grosso. Not only does it look stunning in the garden, it is delicious when added to marinades and salad dressing. It has a mild pepper flavor and especially savory as a rub for meat.

Lavender grows very well in the Northwest, can survive cold winters and is disease-resistant, making it a hardy and visually appealing addition to any garden. Full sun is ideal. In shade, lavender is prone to wilting or "reaching" for the sun, causing the blossoming spikes to lay low rather than standing erect.

The best time to pick lavender is during the early stages of blossoming. If you wait too long, the flowers will be less aromatic. Avoid pruning late summer until new growth emerges the following spring. To keep lavender from becoming straggly cut back to about 8 inches every 2-3 years. Early fall is the best time to transplant if your lavender isn't in a sunny location. It is not a long-lived plant, so shrubs will need to be replaced every 10-12 years.

Lavender can be used in crafts. I make homemade soap and add fragrant blossoms. Fresh-cut lavender wreaths are especially beautiful and a calming herb for your bedroom, to help you sleep sound. If you make paper, add buds and make herbal cards. You can purchase fresh lavender bundles and products, grown at Lakeside Lavender, from Idaho Indie Works, located at 106 N. 6th St., in the heart of Downtown Boise.

Check out the informative DVD, Nothing but Herbs; you can purchase it through The University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Barbara Arnold, owner of the small herb farm, Nothing but Herbs, in the Idaho Panhandle, shares her knowledge about growing and marketing more than 230 varieties of herbs. It is a superb presentation and produced by The U of I Extension Critical Issues grant program.

The National Agriculture Library also provides an extensive guide to organizations, websites, books and articles dedicated to the cultivation of herbs in your backyard garden and commercial adventures.

Come take a walk through lavender fields this weekend. Idaho is home to many lavender farms that host annual festivals. You-Cut Festival at Lakeside Lavender Farm in Nampa is open July 13-14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Ridge River Farm in Emmett is open July 13 from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and July 14 from 11 a.m. to 4p.m. The Lavender Merchant located in Kuna, has their fields open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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