I have had a bit of a surprise this summer – if “summer” is what you can call it. I had always imaged the aromatic woody herbs – lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme – would release their essential oils best on very hot days.
I had visions of strolling through dry Mediterranean landscapes, crushing these small shrubs as I wandered by, surrounded by olfactory delights.
But it seems I might have been wrong.
Most days I cycle to work past a large bed of English lavenders, lining a pedestrian crossing, and this wet, soggy and thoroughly annoying summer, the plants have more scented than I have ever noticed before.
It just seems so incongruous.
All the garden books advise planting these shrubs in a very sunny, well-drained site, but there these plants are, thriving in a soggy summer, and flowering and “scenting” very well. It is so confusing!
There are, of course, a great many different types of lavender to choose from, and perhaps it is just this one variety that is heavily scented in the rain.
Most lavenders fall into one of three distinct groups: the French lavenders, derived from Lavendula dentata; the Spanish or Italian lavenders, L. stoechas, and the “English” lavenders, (that do not actually come from England) L. angustifolia.
In general terms, the French are the largest growing varieties, with long stems and toothed leaves (hence the “dentate” part of their name). The Italian and Spanish varieties are smaller growing, and have lovely soft grey foliage. The English hybrids are usually the smallest growing varieties, with finer foliage and daintier flowers.
The French types are not planted as often as they would be if they were smaller growing, as they end up too big for most gardens. You can still buy them for hedges, but they will grow up to two metres tall.
The “stoechas” varieties are now the most numerous, and it seems there are new varieties on the market each year. You only need to grow a few of these, and have them start seeding, to quickly realise how variable they are from seed, and how easy it would be to start selecting for different flower types and growth habits.
Perhaps the best one for New Zealand conditions is the Invercargill-bred ‘Marshwood’. This has lovely deep purple flowers with extended dusky pink ‘ears’. This is a very reliable variety, and is now grown in many parts of the world. There is an even deeper form, a seedling from ‘Marshwood’, called ‘Hazel’ that is worth looking out for.
There are many different colours and shades among these plants, with green, pink and nearly-white forms popular over the past year years, and they seem to come and go at a bewildering rate. One I am sure will be around for a while is the intriguing little ‘Bee Happy’, which has violet blue flowers with pure white wings, or ears. There are others in the ‘Bee’ range – ‘Bee Bold’ has dark purple flowers topped with purple wings, while ‘Bee Sweet’ has purple flowers with light pink wings. They are cheerful additions to the ranks of easily grown shrubs.