Friday, March 28, 2008

Lavender, Part 1

A Lavender for All Reasons
My renewed love affair (see my first post) with lavender (
Lavandula spp.) began during the California drought of 1977 as a matter of necessity. As the planting portion of my business shriveled from lack of water, I began looking for drought-hardy plants to work with. The drought, by taking its toll on established landscapes, slowly revealed, like a grim version of time-lapse photography, which plants could best take the neglect and still look reasonably attractive— and lavenders were one of the champions. Lavandula spp., has become a love of mine and one of the three most important plants in my landscape design "palette". (The other two are rosemary and santolina.)

Planted correctly in my garden, lavenders can easily be sustained with irrigation during an entire rainless California summer. I plant as the fall rains begin and the roots thrive all winter long. Not only does this produce lush growth the following spring, but I have needed no irrigation there after. (I live in the cool coastal climate with a 30-year average rainfall of 58’—USDA Zone 10a) If you have the right plant in the correct place, you may be able to achieve an irrigation-free garden. But you will have to experiment, even in places where there is summer rain. And especially in the arid Southwest.)

I use larger, shrubby lavenders act as effective weed suppressants since their two- to four-foot-tall canopy shades out most germinating seeds. Equally important, lavenders require very limited shearing to maintain a pleasant and attractive form. All of this saves on my garden’s maintenance.

With lavenders, I constantly remind myself of the "three D"s——drainage, drainage, drainage. The chaparral (a xerophytic—dry—plant community common to Mediterranean climates) of Greece and California can share a common characteristic——rocky soil. In Greece, the best-looking plants were those that seemed to flourish miraculously out of the rocky, nutrient-poor crevices of sheer mountain cliffs. (Also, the only place the goats and sheep couldn't get to the plants!) The beautiful form of cliff-dwelling chaparral plants is a testament to the plant's tolerance, if not preference, for rocky soil with extreme drainage. While a typical rocky Greek "soil" (a flattering word for the decomposed and crumbled remnants of rocky cliffs and outcroppings) is low in many nutrients, especially the often-overrated nitrogen, it is high in two important factors: minerals and drainage, both absolutely essential to lavenders.

The high mineral content of rocky soil may also be a preference, if not a necessity, for lavenders and other Mediterranean herbs. Cy Hyde, of Well Sweep Herbs, suggests "the sand we use to plant a lavender and mound up around the base of the plant to encourage drainage may actually be good for it in other ways. Art Tucker (of the Horticulture Department of Delaware College) has some research to show that the sand in the soil increases the volatile-oil content of the herb's foliage." Thus, rocky, mineral, sandy, or gravelly soil amendments seem to provide more than one benefit.

The clay so often present in many home landscapes I’ve worked in is deadly to lavender; while the clay may be high in total nutrients, its moisture-holding capacity works against the needs of lavender roots. These roots, especially the upper four to ten inches—the crown of the root system, are very prone to crown rot (Phytophthora spp.) and various root rots, fungal diseases, stem mildews, and blights.

Contrary to regular garden practice, I always amend my small planting mounds for lavenders with the addition of plenty of gravel. Drainage is so critical to lavenders that, in any form of a clay loam, the addition of gravel, sand, or a similar non-nitrogen amendment for drainage is absolutely essential. When in doubt about the drainage of a particular garden soil, amend raised planting mounds or plant in a container filled with a well-drained potting mix. The single most important lesson when gardening in my Mediterranean ecosystem is that providing the essential drainage is not only critical, but, makes for better plant growth and, at the same time, the watering needs are not increased , they may actually be reduced.

Lavandiferous Canopies for Weed Control
With a landscape plan, I usually choose a lavender by its size and form first, then for color of leaf and flower. I usually place larger lavenders at the back of the design, further from prominent pathways, so as to have a mounding, spherical form that also shades out weeds trying to sneak in from the garden perimeter. For this application, my three favorites are
L. dentata (sold in the west as French lavender), Sweet lavender (which I've mostly purchased as L. heterophylla ), and Spike lavender (this one is usually sold as L. latifolia, sometimes as L. spica ). All have a wonderfully rounded, half-spherical form and grow, not including blossom stems, from 2.5 to 4 feet high, depending upon the soil.

Of the three,
L. dentata has the longest and most frequent periods of bloom—all months of the year, except for a few weeks during late summer/early winter and, occasionally, in the early spring or mid summer. The L. dentata blossom is a delightful pastel tone of lavender; too subtle for some tastes, but I prefer pastels more than hot colors. The foliage is a soft, fuzzy grey-green color and the leaves are, in the words of Hortus Third, "linear-oblong, crenately toothed to pectinate-pinnatifid, obtuse, revolute, sessile". I think of the leaves as soft gray with rounded, large saw-toothed edges.

Spike lavender,
L. latifolia, has a very narrow flower on a long, somewhat-branched stem. The blossom color is also subtle and, because of the smallness of the bloom, the flowers aren't very noticeable. A bonus, however, is the long, fine stem of the dead flower heads which lasts for a long time as a vertical line in the landscape, and doesn't look too tacky. If I never get around to shearing the spike lavender, the deadheads are a nice addition to a natural-looking garden—since nature doesn't bother to shear her Grecian lavenders (except by means of browsing goats!).

When it comes to the sweetest, most delicate lavender debate, I throw my Greek fisherman's hat into the
L. angustifolia and its many cultivars. My special L. angustifolias’s include: The pure white ‘Alba compacta’, ‘Richard Gray’, the extraordinary long color of ‘Baby’s Blue’, ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’, the wonderful pink-flowering ‘Miss Katherine’.

For sheer drama and rich color of blossom, my vote goes to
L. stoechas, sold as Spanish lavender around here. In the linguistic gymnastics of Hortus Third , the flowers are "oblong-obovate, to 2 in. long, verticilasters 6-10 -fld., calyx to .25 in. long, 13-nerved, corolla dark purple." What excites me is the spectacularly-rich, royal purple "flags" that stand straight up from the top of the flower. The beauty of Spanish lavender has inspired me to spend considerable time reviving my long-lost love of super-close-up floral photography in an attempt to capture the naked, abstract "essence" of the blossom. My favorite named-variety for these floral "nude studies" is L. stoechas 'Atlas'. This one has by far the tallest, most regal "flags". A close contender for bud size is L. stoechas 'Otto Quest', which is much more prevalent in the average wholesale and retail nurseries around here. The species (unnamed selections or seed-grown plants) form of the Spanish lavender has dramatically smaller blossoms, only up to 5/8ths of an inch compared to the 3/4-to-one-inch-long buds of 'Otto Quest' and the nearly 1.5 inch buds of 'Atlas'. The advantage to the species form is its well-behaved plant-shape and reduced shearing demands. And again, remember that those plants selected for huge blossoms flop over easier and can't take overhead irrigation or rain.

There is a strikingly odd form of lavender in my garden—-a lime-green/yellow-flowered form of Spanish lavender (
L. stoechas ‘Viridis’)-see the photo above. This plant's foliage is also noticeably more yellow than some green-leaved lavenders, making it hard to work with when designing a landscape, because of the difficulty of blending its color in with most other colors. (The lime-yellow blossoms do make an excellent foil or counter-balance to the royal purple of the 'Atlas' blossoms when I do micro-photography.) This plant with a robust, resinous, and “primitive” foliage is the L. stoechas 'Viridis' I favor for grilling. See the following recipe. (More about lavenders later as my Lavandins begin to bloom. These are crosses between L. latifolia (L. spica) and L. angustifolia.)

Chicken "Pressada" with Lavender

"Pressada" is my Americanized, corrupted Italian way of saying the chicken is pressed between two layers of herbs. This is based on a dish I had while traveling south of Naples, Italy—except the Italians used thyme. This recipe cooks chicken very quickly and makes for an intense lavender flavor throughout the meat because the oils of the lavender “steam” the chicken. I like this recipe because it’s more theatrical than any other barbecue I know and it’s a conversation piece. This is a true gardener’s recipe because one could never afford to buy the amount of herbs this recipe calls for at a culinarily-enriched supermarket or fancy farmer’s market. This is a recipe for edible landscapers.

One barbecue pit or grill.
A medium-sized bag of briquettes.
Fire starter paper, wooden kindling and matches.
A 10- by 20-inch cast iron pancake griddle.
A cookie sheet as big or bigger than the griddle.
Five to 10 bricks.
Two pair of long barbecue tongs.
Cooking oil (olive oil works fine) and a natural-hair pastry brush.
A serving platter with garnish.

6 to 8 boneless chicken breasts, or other boneless cuts.
A five-gallon bucket loosely filled with lavender foliage and flower stalks.

Start the charcoal:
Start enough charcoal briquettes to form a layer one or two briquettes thick beneath the entire surface of your griddle. Start the briquettes in a can with an open top and bottom and some holes punched around the bottom. Use newspaper and kindling to start the fire so the petrol taste of lighter fluid is eliminated.

Harvest the lavender while the coals are heating the griddle. Trim more foliage than flowers, as the leaf adds more flavor. Use this as a chance to trim back the plant to a more compact form. Woody stems are not a problem, but younger, more succulent growth will release more fragrance.

Once the flames are out and the briquettes are glowing white at the edges, rearrange in a layer beneath the griddle. When the coals get the griddle nearly orange hot, where a splattering of oil dances and sizzles on the grill, you're ready to begin.

Cooking the Chicken
Quickly coat the griddle with the olive oil. This is to keep the herbs from sticking and to make it easier to clean the griddle. Don't use a brush with plastic bristles as the intensely-heated griddle will melt the bristles.

Quickly layer up to two-inches of lavender prunings on the griddle with the stems running the length of the griddle. Be sure to cover the griddle thoroughly with the lavender, leave no holes.

In a rapid fashion, lay the boneless chicken breasts across the top of the lavender—perpendicular to the lengths of lavender.

Now, quickly cover the chicken with another two-inches of continuous lavender foliage. Put the cookie sheet on top of the chicken-and-lavender. Then stack the bricks to press the lavender and chicken into a compressed "sandwich" —the “pressada” part.

Because the heat supercharges the volatile oils in the lavender, the steam and oil mixture quickly cooks the chicken like a pressurized sauna. The chicken may only need five- to 10-minutes per side, if the griddle was nearly orange hot. Or, it may take 15- to 20-minutes per side if the charcoal wasn’t hot enough.

After the proper time (which you’ll learn in short order by practicing), quickly: remove the bricks and the cookie sheet and use the tongs to quickly turn the "sandwich" over. The lavender and chicken usually holds together enough to make a unified whole. You'll either amaze your friends or have to quietly reassemble the lavender-and-chicken sandwich while eating humble pie. Practice make perfect.

After the proper length of time on the second side, remove the bricks and cookie sheet. Remove the top layer of the lavender, lift the chicken off the bottom layer of foliage and place on a platter.

Remove the lavender and the griddle from the grill. Quickly restoke the coals to a good-and-hot temperature and place the chicken breasts on the grill diagonal to the metal's line. Brown briefly. Turn the chicken to create a brown cross-hatching. Grill a cross-hatching on the other side.

Serve the browned chicken on a rice pilaf or on top of bed of colorful mesclun (Spring mix) salad greens.

While eating, you can add leftover lavender foliage to the coals throughout the evening to produce a hazy romantic atmosphere infused with a heady smoky-lavender fragrance. Or, use the leftover lavender to smoke on the grill other fish and meats for the coming week’s lunches. Grill pork chops, turkey drumsticks, turkey breasts, salmon, hot dogs (don’t waste these on the kids), tuna, or sausages.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2008

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