Provence in the East Midlands

If you have been lucky enough to have some frost-free winters, perhaps you too will be inspired to fill your garden with the hues and scent of French lavender.
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The Independent Culture
THERE MAY be something to be said for global warming after all. A succession of frost-free winters, here in the East Midlands, has brought out my spirit of adventure, and spurred me to take chances with a variety of plants which cannot tolerate sub-zero temperatures for long. For example, 10 years ago I doubt that I would have risked losing good money on planting the so-called "French" lavender, even though it has a charm and distinction all its own. But that was then, and this is now.

Lavandula stoechas, like the ridiculously named `English lavender' Lavandula angustifolia, comes from the western Mediterranean, but is less hardy than the latter, a sub-shrub incomparable as a low hedging or edging plant, and ingredient of soaps and pillow- fillings. Yet, though it cannot match the amenability of the English lavender, Lavandula stoechas (together with its subspecies, pedunculata, and the several hybrids between L stoechas and L viridis) must now have a good claim for any sheltered, sunny spot in a free-draining soil, or one that can be made so with a liberal dose of horticultural grit in the planting hole. Their shrubby, domed habits mean they make magnificent specimen plants for deep pots or containers and, if dead-headed, will produce more flowers through the summer.

Lavandula stoechas is an evergreen shrub, growing to about 60cm, with grey-green leaves and short-stalked, fat, stubby mauve flower spikes, topped off with a flourish of thin, crepe "rabbit's ears" (strictly speaking, sterile bracts), reminiscent of the calyces which surround a Cape gooseberry. L stoechas pedunculata has longer-stalked flowers which rise above the foliage, and have even more conspicuous bracts, of varying lengths, which must have reminded someone of resting butterflies to acquire its colloquial name of Papillon. The leaves of French lavenders smell resinous when crushed.

The hybrids between L stoechas and L viridis range in colour from burgundy purple (in the case of "Helmsdale"), through lavender-purple (the brilliantly named "Fathead"), purple-pink ("Marshwood") to white ("Snowman"). I have had success growing "Marshwood" and "Helmsdale" by planting them in the best-drained, sunniest border against the house wall; however, I do think that lack of air-circulation has encouraged spotting on the older leaves in the centre of the bushes, and I might be better off growing them in a sharply drained compost in large pots in the open air instead.

So beguiling are these lavenders that I can't wait to acquire more: "Avonview", which is supposed to have the longest and darkest purple flowers of all the hybrids; "St Brelade", which is pale purple with conspicuously veined pink bracts; and the newly released purple "Pukehou", which comes from New Zealand. Many of the named stoechas forms have been raised in Australasia, where these plants thrive rather better, because the climate is kinder than ours. However, who knows, that state of affairs may not last forever.

Mail-order nurseries with good lists of lavenders include Norfolk Lavender Ltd, Caley Mill, Heacham, Norfolk PE31 7JE (01485 572383), and Downderry Nursery, Pillar Box Lane, Hadlow, Tonbridge, Kent TN11 9SW (01732 810081). They both deliver French lavenders in the spring. A biannual newsletter is available from Joan Head, who holds one of the five National Collections of Lavandula. Annual subscription is pounds 3; send a cheque, payable to `The Lavender Bag', to Joan Head, 6, Church Gate, Clipston-on-the-Wolds, Keyworth, Notts, NG12 5PA, or visit website: www/