Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lavender and Global Warming

Lavender has enraptured me for as long as I can remember: the mere idea that a single plant from tip of root to top of inflorescence can offer such aromatic treasure demonstrates what a gift it is to us.

The color itself is soothing, gentle on the eyes like mist on a far horizon. Sitting in the midst of a lavender field is a multi-sensory event: the rolling shades of blue and green and grey relieve any tension you brought with you, the comforting tang of the volatile oils relax you as they are released by the warmth of the sun which also shines on you, the soft and lulling buzz of bees grounds you in the world of nature and blankets any intrusions related to civilization. (If you are allergic to bee stings, my dream could be your nightmare. Imagine the whirr of butterfly wings instead.)

I've always thought of England as the mother lode for lavender plants. Lavandula angustifolia is the group usually referred to as English lavender, but this plant was actually introduced to Great Britain by the Romans who used it in their laundry (lavanda, Latin for things that need to be washed from the verb lavare).

Gardens like Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds (shown here) and renowned garden designer Gertrude Jekyll's (pronounced gee-kill) own garden at Munstead Woods give us two Lavandula angustifolia cultivars, Hidcote and Munstead. From there the list grows long as new cultivars are always being introduced. Also, lavender cross-fertilizes easily, so if you have more than one type in your garden and you find little sprouts of new growth where you didn't plant them, odds are they won't be true to the parent plants that bore them. Don't worry, though; they will be lovely regardless. Why not name them after yourself? Some people do that with newly discovered stars. (I do it with hosta sports, but that's for another post.)

Apparently lavender was used during World War II to disinfect hospital floors and walls, which means the scent of lavender must bring a flood of memories for anyone associated with those facilities at that time. For them, the scent of lavender may not be so wonderful. As Proust reminds us with his madeleines in Remembrance of Things Past, the olfactory system and the part of the brain where memories are stored are inextricably interconnected.

I've always had good results applying lavender oil to my temples to get rid of headaches. To me it is comforting. It seems it was comforting for Napoleon and Josephine, too, though not as a headache cure. They drank a mixture of coffee and cocoa infused with lavender as an aphrodisiac. Here's a very simple recipe, if you're curious: Put one cup of hot coffee and one cup of hot cocoa into a French press coffee pot and add 3 tablespoons of fresh lavender flowers or 1 tablespoon of dried lavender flowers (use only Lavandula angustifolia for culinary purposes and make certain, of course, that it hasn't recently been sprayed with anything you don't want to ingest). Let this mixture steep for three minutes and add honey to taste. What do you think?

I first tried growing lavender in Seattle in the very early 1980s. At that time, small plants were available in a few nurseries, looking wan and leggy. I bought them anyway and tried to coax them along. I thought if they could grow in England, they ought to be able to grow in the Pacific Northwest. Generally that is true because there are many similarities in our garden capabilities. However, something was wrong. Maybe it was too cloudy. Maybe too much rain. More different than we thought from the gardens of Great Britain? Maybe the soil had the wrong basic set of nutrients. I couldn't get the combination right, however, so for several years I gave up.

Then I started noticing heartier plants in larger containers in my favorite nurseries. They must know what they're doing trying to sell those here, I decided, and brought home a fine selection that included the Lavandula angustifolia of my previous and unsuccessful efforts.

This time it worked. Mighty hedges of lavender took hold and bees and butterflies covered them the moment the buds started to show color. Had the plants changed? Had my horticultural practices changed? No and no.

So it must have been the garden itself--the weather? the soil?

Since my early days with lavender, gardens of Seattle have changed considerably. Now it's not just lavender that grows on every corner (and parking strip and median strip) but also rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, a plant native to scrubby and rocky areas along the Mediterranean coast.

The first olive tree I see growing in Seattle will be not the symbol of enduring peace that is has been since time immemorial. Tolerant of virtual neglect, able to thrive in rocky soil while being baked under an unforgiving sun--Olea Europaea will become for me the symbol of how we have breached our covenant with our creator and spoiled the garden created for us and all other creatures.

I just read a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges entitled, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, 2009). I'm glad I read it but it terrified me. Mr. Hedge's discussion of global warming woke me up to the reality that my fears about seeing olive trees in Seattle someday might be warranted, at least until they won't grow anywhere anymore.

Photo credits: Wikipedia, lavender fields and lavender flowers; Hidcote Manor courtesy of The National Trust UK.

1 comment:

  1. I went to the Seattle Craig's List the other day for something else and happened upon...olive trees for sale. My young granddaughters have dual US/Canadian citizenship, for which I'm thankful. It's frightening to imagine how the world might change in their lifetimes.