Few flowers give such good return as lavender. The edible flowers, which look and smell beautiful in bloom, can be cooked into intriguing desserts and main dishes. The plant itself, be it green or gray, has an evergreen mounding shape suitable for formal or country-style gardens.
In the American vegetable garden, lavender should be included for the simple fact that its early summer flower spikes attract bumblebees, the primary pollinizers for tomato plants. When the lavender flowers are over, the bumblebees stick around to help turn little yellow tomato blossoms into beefy red tomatoes.
Lavender's link to the kitchen garden dates back centuries, when it was valued not as food but as medicine. Homemade lavender waters were used as antiseptics, employed to dress wounds as late as the Civil War.
Today's use of pungent-sweet lavender blossoms in sachets recalls their even earlier history as a strewing herb, laid onto floors or into cupboards to keep bugs away.
I like lavender best for cooking. In colder climates, it makes a good substitute for the more tender herb, rosemary.
Just two spoonfuls will give flavor to roast chicken or roast lamb. Lavender's sweet herbal perfume makes a wonderfully refreshing ice cream, especially if you like the taste of green tea or mint. Last year I made so many batches there were hardly enough blossoms left on my backyard bushes to dry for potpourri.
Many folks enjoy lavender simply as a craft herb. The flower spikes dry easily when hung upside down in a spare closet or other cool, dark spot, while the fragrance keeps for many months. Try dried lavender flowers in a bath: Pack them in a large tea ball, and troll them in the tub's hot water for a gently invigorating soak.
Lavender's scent comes from essential oils captured in the flowers, in the stems and, to a lesser extent, in the leaves. Among the many varieties of lavender, the scents are quite different. Plant size varies too, as does leaf color, which can range from an olive-green to silvery gray. It helps to know a bit about each species to use them well in a landscape scheme.
What we call English lavender is usually Lavandula angustifolia, which has dark purple flowers, light gray leaves, and a pronounced fragrance that is also mellow, warm and sweet. In the kitchen garden it can be clipped to a tight, low hedge to border your lettuce beds.
Even as an inexperienced gardener, I grew this with ease. It is a hardy perennial and, left alone, spreads into dense mats that become a haze of purple-blue each summer. The newer white and pink versions seem to be less vigorous.
French lavender is L. dentata, with greenish leaves and a scent that's sharper and more tangy than English lavender -- one whiff of this and you'll understand why it was once popular for men's cologne. This tender species must be overwintered indoors where the snows fall, since frost will kill it. It makes a tidy plant and a nice round topiary, as does L. latifolia, also sold under the name French lavender.
The lavender used in modern perfumes is a hybrid, Lavendula x intermedia. Smell it before you buy it as a garden plant. The fragrance is resinous and woody, and not pleasing to everyone.
All lavenders are easy to grow. Baking sunlight and poor, rocky soils with good drainage suit them, making these plants excellent candidates for a spot near hot pavement or any location where less woody herbs wilt. Fertilize once in early spring, then shear back plants immediately after flowering for more flowers next year. No need to spray for insects -- nothing bothers lavender, though in bloom season you may have to dodge bees.
What lavender can't abide is wet feet. The surest way to kill it is to plant in low ground. Try growing it on a slope instead, perhaps alongside stone steps. It can decorate one end of a raised vegetable bed, or punctuate the garden path in a row of Mediterranean-style terra-cotta pots.
Natural companions include fragrant perennial sages and thymes, since these herbs take the same care. By mixing lavenders with two or three taller sages, for their broader leaves and blue flowers, and some creeping thymes that blossom pink or white, you can create a tapestry bed of fragrance and flavor in any small, sunny spot in your kitchen garden.
Lavender ice cream
2 handfuls fresh lavender with stems
2 cups heavy whipping cream
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 ripe peach and fresh lavender blossoms (optional)
Place lavender in a bowl with the whipping cream. Cover and refrigerate four hours or overnight.
Place lavender and cream in a saucepan. Heat until the mixture boils, them remove from heat.
In a second saucepan, mix egg yolks, cornstarch, sugar and vanilla. Whisk until well blended.
Using a strainer to catch the flowers, slowly pour the cream from the first saucepan to the second, stirring as you go. Discard lavender.
Heat the second saucepan on a low flame, and keep stirring until the mixture thickens like loose custard.
ZTC Pour into a clean bowl, cover and refrigerate overnight or at least 8 hours. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to machine directions.
(Optional: Peel and finely dice a very ripe peach; add to the ice cream, along with a handful of individual lavender blossoms, in the last 10 minutes of freezing.)
Pub Date: 6/01/97