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Lusciour lavender

May 28, 2002|BY Dorry Baird Norris

Lusciour lavender

Avignon, France, once home to the papal court, is the gateway to Provence's fields of fragrance. Here lavender is queen. In shops, tiny cloth bags printed with paisley-like designs filled with dried lavender blossoms vie for display space with vials of lavender essence and lavender themed towels.

It is April, so their potent scent must come from last season's blossoms. This year's crop is only hinted at by the tips of the new growth on the thousands of lavender plants that we see hunkered down in the barren looking fields between here and France's perfume capital, Grasse. The resting plants look like an army of hedgehogs marching endlessly across the stony slopes. By June these "hedgehogs" will be ablaze with purple and fill the air with their fresh, clean scent.

The exhibits at the Muse du Lavande show the whole story of lavender from field to consumer. From these displays it is clear that the indigenous gritty, well drained soil and the blessing of constant sunshine are the secrets of lavender's success in Provence.

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Lavender, an herb of enormous economic importance to France, has, through history, filled a variety of roles: as medicine, as flavoring in the kitchen (Elizabethan cooks were especially fond of the herb), and in beauty products (the Greeks bathed in lavender-scented water). Today we find it in Spanish sausage as well as in Moroccan cooking. It is useful in marinades for game birds, in fruit jellies and in salads. One cookbook author even suggested it might be used in sauerkraut.

Perhaps you've noticed those cute little earthenware crocks in specialty kitchen shops that look as if someone had scribbled "Herbes de Provence" on their sides with a magic marker. This cooking blend usually contains the mainstays of the Provenal kitchen picked from dooryard gardens - savory, rosemary, thyme, oregano and mint. Fennel and lavender are less usual but welcome additions. A touch of this mixture adds new flavor to meat stews, beans soups and roasted poultry.

Tea from the flowers is used to treat anxiety and a few drops of the oil applied to the forehead is supposed to relieve a headache. An Associated Press story from London reported the success of lavender in tests with elderly patients suffering from insomnia. All responded to the smell of lavender as well as they had to sleeping pills - pills that often produced unpleasant side effects like dizziness and confusion.

No well-appointed household in the 17th through 19th centuries would have dreamed of putting away linens without lavender bags tucked here and there. Do you suppose our ancestors slept better for reposing on lavender scented sheets?

We've found that a drop or two of lavender oil applied to a cold light bulb will, when the light is turned on, fill the room with a soothing, fresh fragrance. You and the room will be refreshed for several hours.

Does this make you eager to start your own field of lavender? All you need are a few of the right plants and elbow grease to create a coarse, limestone bed to help the clay that doubles for soil hereabouts drain adequately.

Our first stop is a feed store, to buy several bags of fine chicken grit. Remember, lavender needs good drainage and thrives in gritty soil; chicken grit is the perfect soil amendment. You'll need some egg shells or other source of lime - a few ground up oyster shells wouldn't hurt either.

Now as to plants. We like plants that survive our somewhat unpredictable winters so we pass on beautiful but only marginally hardy Lavendula stoechas. It's the one with butterflylike bracts. This year we're trying two new varieties, Goodwin Creek and Dilly Dilly, to see how they fare through our winter.

In the past we've had good success with Lavendula angustifolia. Jim Becker of Goodwin Creek Farms claims it is the best for potpourri and dried flowers. The silver gray foliage of this 18- to 24-inch beauty has dusky violet blue flowers.

Lavendula angustifolia "Hidcote" at 12 to 18 inches is more compact and the deep purple flowers dry well.

Lavendula angustifolia "Munstead" grows to between 12 and I8 inches as well. The deep blue flowers are strongly fragrant.

The tallest - and some claim the most fragrant - of the tribe suitable for our climate is Lavendula x intermediate "Grosso."

To create your own little bit of Provence choose a spot that gets sun most of the day. Dig a hole that's one foot across and deep and pour in 2 quarts of chicken grit and three mushed up egg shells, add the soil from the hole and mix well. Fill in the hole and set the plant in the hole at the same level it was growing in its pot. Press the soil gently around the base of the plant, then water. Lavender is content with a moderate amount of moisture and once established is drought tolerant. Research at Delaware State University has shown that lavender is most fragrant when grown mulched with coarse sand. You might try gravel but by all means avoid bark mulch. Bark holds too much moisture around the base of the plant.

Harvest your lavender for drying just before the flowers begin to open. Divide in small bundles, secure each with a rubber band and hang upside down to dry in a warm, dry, dark place.

This year, after we've harvested our flowers for drying, we're going to be brave and cut our lavender plants back in August by at least 10 percent. This will be also be a good time to snip out any dead or bare stems.

Next spring we'll trim our plants back by 25 percent. Soon the new growth will begin to show. By the end of April it will be apparent that some of the plant has died, so we'll cut out those branches. Then it will be time to sit back to enjoy the fragrant blooms of our own lavender corner.

And remember, lavender is not without ancient magical aspects. Clothes rubbed with the flowers were supposed to attract love. Symbolically it signifies devotion, luck, loyalty. and some say it soothes the "passions of the heart" (whatever those may be).

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