The Gardener's Apprentice

Fernleaf Lavender

Surfacing at the end of winter like a horticultural life raft, the week-long Philadelphia Flower Show is salvation for gardeners grown weary of cold weather.  The Philadelphia Convention Center, a cavernous place, is filled with flowers and plants, from tulips to exotic orchids to beautifully grown succulents.  Flowers strut their stuff in display gardens and artfully crafted arrangements.  They smile out of frames in the botanical art exhibition and confound you with their perfection in the competitive class area.  You can even purchase plants and cut flowers in the sale aisles.  The abundance is overwhelming.

I never come home empty handed, though I have occasionally come home empty walleted.  Making my way around the sale aisles, I fixate on something different every year.  Unusual African violets claimed my fancy a few years ago.  Another year it was a yellow clivia that sang to me from one booth.  This year’s fancy was unexpected—lavender.

I have lots of lavender in my garden and this past summer the plants were magnificent, growing to new heights and producing two, and in some cases three crops of fragrant purple blooms.  But the lavender that stole my heart in Philadelphia was not the ordinary Lavendula angustifolia or English lavender.  It wasn’t even a new angustifolia variety.  It was a species that was new to me–fernleaf lavender or Lavendula multifida.  I am drawn to plants with interesting common names.  In this case, the descriptive “fernleaf” epithet gives way to the even more descriptive “French lace” and the intriguing “Egyptian lavender”.

All lavenders are classified as shrubs or subshrubs.  You can see why when you look at the woody plant bases.  This does not stop nurseries and garden centers from grouping them with the perennials or, more properly with the herbs.

The best definition of “herb” I know is “useful plant”.  Ecologically speaking, all plants are useful, because each has a role to play in its particular ecosystem.  Herbs, however, are distinguished by the fact that they have been especially useful to human beings, as medicines, cosmetics, air fresheners, dye sources and flavorings for food.  Lavender has been used for all those purposes for centuries.  These days, even the supermarket aisles are full of the stuff, with lavender scenting everything from furniture polish to bleach.  Romans added it to bath water, hence the genus name, which is derived from the Latin “lavare”, meaning “to wash”.  The scent is reputed to have a calming effect and at various times has been stuffed into small pillows to help insomniacs get to sleep.  William Turner, sixteenth century English physician and herbalist, took that idea a bit further, saying, “the flowers of lavender, quilted in a cap, comfort the brain very well.’

I am comforted by the sight of my new fernleaf lavender, which is about 18 inches tall and crowned by flower spikes of a very intense blue-purple shade.  The flowers and foliage do not seem to have as much fragrance as some of the English or French lavenders, but then again, they are not outside, basking in the sunshine right now, with their essential oils warmed and ready to waft on the breeze.  I’ll withhold my judgment until the plants migrate to the porch for late spring/summer vacation.

English lavenders have short, needle-like leaves, but the fernleaf species sports feathery or fern-like foliage in a calming shade of gray-green.  This makes the plants attractive even when they are not in flowers.  They top out at about two feet tall and wide, easily containable in medium size pots.  Those pots are necessary, because Lavendula multifida is not hardy in cold winter climates.  My fernleaf beauty will have to spend the winter months in the sunny dining room instead of braving the freezing breezes with its cold-tolerant cousins.

Nature is full of compensations and, in this climate the compensation for fernleaf lavender’s tenderness is that it is somewhat more tolerant of summer humidity than its fragrant fellow travelers.  As a dues-paying member of the mint or Labiatae family, it is relatively unattractive to deer, rabbits, groundhogs and other varmints, while being attractive to pollinators.  Experts say that fernleaf lavender likes “sweet soil”, which means soil that is slightly on the alkaline side of the pH spectrum.  Like all lavenders, it also prefers full sun and excellent drainage, so lighten the potting mix with sand or very fine gravel in equal parts.  If you want to include it in borders, sink the pots into the ground and dig up in the fall.  The best rule of thumb for tender plants like fernleaf lavender is to keep them in the house until night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

So what makes fernleaf lavender “Egyptian” to some people?  Its origins.  Long before Lavendula multifida made its bow at the Philadelphia Flower Show, it hailed from southern Europe through northern Africa, an area that includes Egypt.  It is possible that it sweetened the air for the pharaohs just as it sweetens the end of winter for me.

If you want to add to your lavender collection, try Well-Sweep Herb Farm, which carries an enormous assortment of lavenders, including the fernleaf species.  Find them at 205 Mount Bethel Road, Port Murray, NJ 07865-4147, (908) 852-5390; www.wellsweep.com.  The online catalog can be downloaded from the website.  To order a print catalog, contact Department CE100 at Well-Sweep.  The print catalog is free.