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The Iberian Lavenders

Text and photographs by Joan Head

For the full article see The Mediterranean Garden No 42, October 2005.

About eighteen months ago, Joan Head was asked to give a talk on lavenders to a garden club in Andalucia. This led her to look again at the species and subspecies that are found in mainland Spain, as well as the Portuguese lavenders.

There are three species in Section Lavandula. All occur in Spain, one of them an endemic.

L. angustifolia subsp. pyrenaica takes its name from the Pyrenees, where it grows mainly on the Spanish side of the border though some is found over in France. This particular subspecies is cousin to the more familiar subsp. angustifolia found further east in France and Italy which has given rise to many cultivars widely grown in gardens, such as 'Hidcote' and 'Loddon Blue'.

Lavandula latifolia grows in north-east, south-east, central and southern Spain as well as in France and Italy. It has a claim to fame as one of the parents of the commercially important hybrid L. x intermedia subsp. intermedia. One selection has been named, L. latifolia 'Corbières', but this cultivar is not generally available.

L.x intermedia subsp. aurigerana is a naturally occurring hybrid of L. latifolia and L. angustifolia subsp. pyrenaica.

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.

L. lanata, the third species in this section, 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.

L. lanata has the deepest violet-blue flowers of all the lavenders 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. There is, however, a growing list of crosses of L. lanata with L. angustifolia subsp. angustifolia occurring in cultivation, including 'Cornard Blue' (later called 'Sawyers'), 'Richard Gray' and 'Andreas'. This cross has deservedly been accorded its own hybrid epithet L. x chaytorae by the authors of the recent monograph The Genus Lavandula.

Lavandula dentata var. dentata in cultivation, taken August 2005

The next lavender, L. dentata var. dentata, is the sole species in Section Dentatae. It is one of the more widely distributed lavender species, Spain being the most westerly area 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 (along the eastern seaboard) among the maquis but can also be found up to 2000m in the hinterland. This lavender 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, which has more silvery foliage.

The Portuguese lavenders come into their own as we look at Section Stoechas which contains three species, all to be found in Portugal and in mainland Spain. Lavenders in this section are distinguished by the presence of striking apical bracts (the "bunny ears" on top of the spike).

Lavandula stoechas is often found in pine or cork oak forests, appearing as a pioneer species after the common firestorms that occur in such communities. It prefers more acidic soil than other lavender species. There are two distinctive subspecies, both found in Spain and Portugal.

Lavandula stoechas subsp. stoechas, taken in Andalucia, April 2005

L. stoechas subsp. stoechas tends to hug the Mediterranean coast growing on open, stony, dry hillsides. In Portugal it grows in the far south-west at Cape St Vincent.

Lavandula stoechas subsp. luisieri, taken in the Baixa Alentejo, May 2004

Lavandula stoechas subsp. luisieri, taken in the Algarve, April 2003

L. stoechas subsp. luisieri occurs in the south-west corner of Spain and is widely seen over Portugal. It is often found with L. viridis, occasional hybrids being produced. There is a cultivar on sale, 'Tickled Pink', selected in New Zealand.

The second species in this section is L. pedunculata. There are five subspecies, three of which are endemic to Spain and Portugal. 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. '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 coastal areas it grows on sandy soils and in scrub, often in open pinewoods. Further inland it is found in clearings in oak forests. In Portugal it is common in the south.

L. pedunculata subsp. sampaiana occurs in central and northern Portugal and in south west and northwest Spain. There are one or two cultivars available in the trade, notably 'Purple Emperor'.

Lavandula viridis, taken in the Baixa Alentejo, S. Portugal, May 2004

Lavandula viridis, taken in the Baixa Alentejo, May 2004

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, white flowers and creamy-green apical bracts. It has a distinctive highly camphorous smell. Though usually associated with southern Portugal it is also found in south-west Spain.

There is a rare hybrid of L.viridis and L. stoechas subsp. luisieri, called L. x alportelensis, as well as a further similar Portuguese hybrid, L. x limae, which is a cross between L. pedunculata subsp. lusitanica and L. viridis. In cultivation, L. viridis has crossed with many pedunculata (only occasionally stoechas) lavenders. The list of named crosses has now reached over fifty and many are generally available. Best sellers include 'Avonview', 'Marshwood', 'Helmsdale', 'Regal Splendour' (all selected in New Zealand) and 'Willow Vale' (selected in Australia).

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 recognisable by its very hairy appearance, particularly noticeable on the stem, and by the twisted, spiralling set of the florets on the flower spike. Its 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 in the US and Australia. There is a cultivar on the market, 'Blue Wonder' sold commercially as seed.

In conclusion, there are roughly 11 species and subspecies and four wild hybrids in the Iberian Peninsula, compared for example to France which can claim three species and a couple of hybrids. However if we included the Canary Islands in the Spanish count, the Iberian lavenders 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.

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