About eighteen months ago, I was asked if I would give a talk on lavenders to a garden club in Andalucia. I finally went over in April 2005. It was an interesting experience, not least because it made me sit down and think about what lavenders the garden club members would see growing wild in the surrounding area. This led me to look again at the species and subspecies that are found in mainland Spain and I have expanded this to include the Portuguese lavenders.
The first lavender I want to mention grows in the Pyrenees, mainly on the Spanish side though some is found over the border in France. It is also found in north east Spain, preferring rocky slopes and open vegetation. This is L. angustifolia subspecies pyrenaica, very similar to the familiar subsp. angustifolia found further east in France and Italy. Subspecies pyrenaica flowers about two weeks earlier and its oil is considered to be inferior to that of subsp. angustifolia, having a higher percentage of borneol and camphor. It is however a good garden plant though no cultivars of this particular subspecies seem to be available for sale.
Lavandula latifolia grows in north east, south east, central and southern Spain as well as in France and Italy. It is not commonly grown as a garden plant. It is difficult to overwinter in the UK and in my experience does not do well in a pot. The plant has a branching habit and reaches up to a metre with flowering spikes. One selection has been named, L. latifolia ‘Corbieres’, but is not widely available.
L. latifolia starts to flower later than L. angustifolia subsp. pyrenaica but flowering times coincide to some extent and where the populations overlap in the wild hybrids can occur. The one found in Spain and the French Pyrenees has been named L.x intermedia subspecies aurigerana. I have not yet seen this plant but it is on my wish list. (We are already familiar with L. x intermedia subsp. intermedia, or lavandin, found in eastern France where the distribution of L. angustifolia subsp. angustifolia and L. latifolia coincide. Many cultivars of this cross exist and are widely available.)
There is a second wild hybrid involving L latifolia. L. x losae is a cross between latifolia and lanata occurring in south east Spain in arid, mountainous areas. This is another one for my wish list. L. lanata. grows wild in Spain but nowhere else. Familiarly known as the woolly lavender, it is instantly recognisable by its silvery appearance due to the density of the hairs covering the whole plant. It grows in the south east of the country mainly in Andalucia where I gave my talk. I asked if anyone had seen it growing or were growing it in their gardens. No one. It is a plant of the mountains, growing at altitudes of 1000m or more. Clearly it can tolerate frosts but once cultivated in a milder, wetter climate it tends to dampen off. I have had success with this plant in the UK by growing it around a large pot in the centre of a lavender ring. Perhaps the outer lavenders give shelter and it keeps drier against the pot than if it were fully exposed to the elements. With me it has survived temperatures down to -10C in these conditions but it needs, as do all lavenders, excellent drainage and as dry a position as possible in the garden.
L. lanata has the deepest violet-blue flowers of all the lavenders (though L. maroccana gives it a run for its money) and the depth of flower colour together with silver foliage often appears in hybrids of this plant. Apart from L. x losae, no other crosses of lanata are known in the wild but once brought into cultivation it goes off the rails. There is a growing list of crosses of L. lanata with L. angustifolia subspecies angustifolia, occurring in cultivation, the first of which appeared in Suffolk, UK in the mid 1980s and was called ‘Cornard Blue’ and later ‘Sawyers’. This particular cross was accorded its own hybrid epithet L. x chaytorae by the authors of the recent monograph The Genus Lavandula.
All the above plants fall into Section Lavandula in lavender classification. Now we move to next lavender which is the sole species in Section Dentatae; L. dentata var dentata is one of the more widely distributed lavender species, Spain being the most westerly of a distribution which extends over North Africa, south west Asia and the south west Arabian Peninsula. In mainland Spain it likes to grow in coastal areas among the maquis but can also be found up to 2000m in the hinterland. This is well known in cultivation although readers in Australia, South Africa or the USA are more likely to be familiar with the variety called candicans, with more silvery foliage. (In the wild, var candicans is found in North Africa and the south west Arabian Peninsula. In cultivation I have found this variety to be hardier than var dentata).
This beautiful lavender is easily recognised by its regularly toothed leaves and tufted flower head. It is often used in ornamental plantings and for this reason has sometimes been wrongly reported as a native to other countries. There is a variegated dentata named after the editor of The Herb Companion, journal of the American Herb Society, called ‘Linda Ligon’. ‘Royal Crown’ is another cultivar to be found in the nursery trade. I should like to digress here to talk about dentata hybrids as they are frequently mislabelled in the trade. One of the crosses found in cultivation is with L. latifolia, and is known as L. x heterophylla or L. x allardii. These plants are nearly always called L. dentata by the trade in the UK and Holland but so clearly are not, being larger and more vigorous plants with sparsely and irregularly toothed leaves and a long tapering inflorescence. They often appear as half standards or as other forms of topiary. However, the cross is interesting as it is a rare example of a hybrid with parents from two different botanical sections. Another such hybrid was found as a chance seedling in Goodwin Creek Gardens, Williams, Oregon. Again, it is known only from cultivation: this time it was a cross between L. lanata and L dentata. Jim Becker wrote in The Lavender Bag 10 (1998) of how he and his wife introduced it as L. ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’ in their 1991 catalogue. I have grown this outside but lost it to moderate frosts. It is one of the few types of lavender that thrive and look good in a pot, sending up many flowering stems and thick vigorous foliage. This cross too has been awarded a hybrid epithet in the monograph: L. x ginginsii after Baron Frederic Gingins de la Sarraz, whose book Histoire naturelle des Lavandes, was translated into English by members of the American Herb Society in the 1967.
Now we come to Section Stoechas. I’m frequently asked how one should pronounce this word and I say “steekas” because it sounds truer to its Greek-derived name that way. Others think differently and I’m not sure that it really matters, as long as we know what lavender we’re talking about. Section Stoechas contains three species and they are all to be found in mainland Spain and in Portugal. Lavenders in this section are distinguished by the presence of striking apical bracts (the “bunny ears” on top of the spike). Let’s start with Lavandula stoechas. The Kew monograph comments on the fact that L. stoechas is often found in pine or cork oak forests, appearing as a pioneer species after the common fire storms that occur in such communities. It prefers more acidic soil than other lavender species. There are two distinctive subspecies, found in both Spain and Portugal. L. stoechas subsp stoechas tends to hug the Mediterranean coast growing on open, stony, dry hillsides (extending to southern France, north and west Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Syria as well as along the North African coast). On the morning of my talk in Andalucia, my hostess took me on a walk to find this lavender, which grows nearby. Typically it appeared at the edge of the path we were taking, in recently disturbed serpentine soil, and away from other competing species (Cistus sp for instance). Older plants can get quite straggly in the wild, unlike the groomed cultivars we find in nursery stock (e.g. ‘Bella Signora’ and ‘Liberty’). The colour of the flower spike can be an intense blue-black, with purple apical bracts.
L. stoechas subsp luisieri grows in the south west corner of Spain and is widely seen over Portugal. It is often found with L. viridis, occasional hybrids being produced (see below). In Portugal I have seen whole fields of this subspecies in flower in May, along with other colourful species, notably Cistus. In fact, it’s hard to miss in the countryside. There is a cultivar on sale, ‘Tickled Pink’, selected in New Zealand.
L. pedunculata used to be classed as a subspecies of L. stoechas but is now recognised as a species in its own right, after many years of confusion and debate over its classification. There are five subspecies three of which are endemic to Spain and Portugal, the remaining two being found respectively in Turkey and Morocco. The subspecies are not easy to distinguish from each other. L. pedunculata subsp pedunculata is seen in north, south and central Spain in the mountains and on the great central plain on sandy soils. It can also be found in the north east corner of Portugal, close to the Spanish border. In contrast to L. stoechas, L. pedunculata prefers a more alkaline soil. There is a wild hybrid of L. pedunculata subsp pedunculata and L. stoechas subsp stoechas called L. x cadevalli.
Often known as the butterfly lavender, L. pedunculata is well-known in cultivation though is not particularly hardy. It is prized for its long stems and fluttering apical bracts, violet-pink in colour, and is grown in gardens for its ornamental appeal. ‘James Compton’ was one of the earliest named selections but ‘Papillon’ is now seen more frequently. In the US probably ‘Atlas’ is better known.
L. pedunculata subsp lusitanica occurs in the south west corner of Spain, In the coastal areas, it grows on sandy soils and in scrub, often in open pine woods. Further inland it is found in clearings in oak forests. In Portugal it is common in the south. I have seen this lavender at the northern edge of its distribution growing wild among forests outside Lisbon. It was early September and many were still in flower and even more were seeding. The apical bracts are a violet-blue and they make an attractive display as a group. It is interesting how opportunistic these lavenders are, taking advantage of clearings and edges of woods, then disappearing as they get crowded out by other species, a lesson for us gardeners.
L. pedunculata subsp sampaiana occurs in central and northern Portugal and in south west and northwest Spain. It has shorter apical bracts than subsp. pedunculata but typically a longer flower spike, violet-purple, than the other two subspecies. There are one or two cultivars available in the trade, notably ‘Purple Emperor’.
The third and last species in this section is L. viridis. It would be very difficult to mistake this lavender for any other. It is a very hairy plant, with rather crinkled bright green leaves with a yellow tinge. Its white flowers and creamy-green apical bracts set it apart from all those purple lavenders and it has a distinctive highly camphorous smell. Though usually associated with southern Portugal it is also found in south west Spain (there is still a debate as to whether L. viridis is native to Madeira or whether it was introduced there, as it was to the Azores). I have seen this lavender in Portugal and on the last occasion it was growing alongside L. stoechas subsp. luisieri. I was also fortunate enough to sight the rare hybrid of these two species, L. x alportelensis, just one hybrid among the throng. What struck me was how relatively few viridis plants there were compared to the thousands of stoechas. Finding a single hybrid was sheer luck. I wonder why they are so rare? There is a further, similar Portuguese hybrid, L. x limae. This is a cross between L. pedunculata subsp lusitanica and L. viridis. I haven’t come across this one yet but will keep a sharp look-out on my next visit to Portugal.
In cultivation, L. viridis has crossed with many stoechas and pedunculata lavenders. The list of named crosses has now reached over fifty and many are generally widely available. Best sellers include ‘Avonview’, ‘Marshwood’, ‘Helmsdale’, ’Regal Splendour’ (all selected in New Zealand) and Willow Vale’ (selected in Australia). A cultivar of L. viridis called ‘Silver Ghost’ came on the market some years ago It has white variegation in the leaves which curl at the edges. It has proved difficult to maintain in cultivation and I regard it as one of the less attractive lavender cultivars.
The final species found in Spain and Portugal is L. multifida. This is the only representative from Section Pterostoechas found on the European mainland. (It is found also in plentiful amounts along the coast of North Africa and pops up in southern Italy, and very rarely in Egypt and the Sudan.) I found L. multifida too in Andalucia, about an hour’s drive away from where I was staying. It was growing on the roadside banks and in lanes next to the house we were visiting. It was quite scruffy and leggy in the wild, competing with grasses for the light and sun. It is recognisable by its very hairy appearance, particularly noticeable on the stem, and by the twisted, spiralling set of the florets on the flower spike. It has a distinctive smell, often disliked, and the leaves are completely different from those of all the lavenders we have been discussing. Instead of being entire (all one piece), they are bipinnatisect, that is, finely divided. For this reason it is sometimes called the fernleaf lavender (US and Australia). Cultivars available on the market include ‘Blue Wonder’ sold commercially as seed. It does not seem to be grown much in the UK by gardeners who are possibly put off by the rather pungent scent.
I enjoyed this exercise of reviewing the species native to the Iberian Peninsula. There are roughly 11 species and subspecies and four wild hybrids but if we took into account the Canary Islands (also Spanish) this figure would more than double, to about 25, including five endemics. But that’s another story.
Reference – The Genus Lavandula T.M. Upson & S. Andrews
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2004 available from www.kewbooks.com
This article was published in The Mediterranean Garden, journal of the MGS, in October 2005 No. 42 and a precis of this article with photos is available on www.mediterraneangardensociety.org/journal/42-iberian-lavenders.html