Since the Middle Ages, gardeners have combined roses with lavender in sunny herb plots and as strewing herbs to freshen up dank dwellings. (As well, medicinal claims have been made for both plants.) Darlene Beauvais, who is active in the American Herb Society's New England chapter, grows lavender in her nursery garden that's nestled against a hill just ten miles from the ocean, in Norwell, Massachusetts. Beauvais grows ten kinds of English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, the hardiest species (Zone 5). Three of the best are 'Vera', the mother species, the tallest at 12 to 24 inches; 16-inch-high 'Munstead', and the 14-inch dwarf 'Hidcote'.
Lavender loves lime, loose soil, excellent drainage, and sun, and it can be planted in the spring after the weather has warmed. (I've grown it from seed without a lot of fuss; it blooms by the third year.) In areas of the country that have acid soil, like New England does, lavender-loving gardeners may have to make some adjustments, beginning with a simple pH test. To provide the near-neutral soil that lavender needs, Beauvais dusts her 30-foot lavender walk every spring with “a light snowfall” of three cups of ground limestone, and usually dresses them later with composted manure. Lavender thrives with a fairly hard shaping toward winter's end; do it early so it won't affect your June crop, warns Beauvais.
She also gives the plants a pinch of superphosphate to boost flowering. She believes that too much nitrogen promotes leafy growth and dilutes the scent. Above all, she suggests not to overwater lavender. It's “English” by way of the Mediterranean and thrives in semiarid conditions. Like other traditional herbs, the foliage of lavender (seeds and roots too!) is fragrant, so the plant remains a delight even when not in bloom. The aroma of the leaves tends to remain locked up unless the plants are bruised, whereas the best fragrant flowers release their scent. Lavender takes well to drying for use in potpourri or sachets. To give an Elizabethan quality to a recipe, add a quarter teaspoon of dried flowers to a salad dressing or poultry stuffing. Also, the tiny fresh flowers look sweet sprinkled over powdered sugar on tea cakes.
SEEDSWOMAN RENEE SHEPHERD, owner of Renee's Garden in Felton, California, created this garden-inspired treat to serve with tea or sherry. She suggests making several batches and tucking them into boxes or tins lined with pastel tissue paper to give as special gifts.
- 1-½ cups (3 sticks) butter, at room temperature
- ⅔ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons very finely chopped lavender florets, fresh or dried
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
- 2-⅓ cups flour
- ½ cup cornstarch
- ¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325°F. Cover the bottoms of two baking sheets with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, lavender, and mint with an electric mixer for about 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the flour, cornstarch, and salt, and beat until incorporated. Divide the dough in half. Flatten into squares and wrap in plastic. Chill until firm.
On a floured board, roll or pat out each square to a thickness of ½ inch. Cut the dough into 1-½-inch squares or rounds. Transfer to baking sheets, spacing the cookies about 1 inch apart. Prick each cookie several times with a fork. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until pale golden (do not brown). Cool slightly, then transfer to a rack. Sprinkle with lavender powdered sugar (recipe follows). Makes about 4 dozen.
Lavender Powdered Sugar
Put 4 or 5 sprigs of lavender flowers into a sealed jar with powdered sugar for a day before using the sugar.