Hot on the scent of one of the joys of summer

A NEW year, a new start, but there's something in the air which reminds me of last summer. It's the faint but unmistakable scent of lavender emanating from a few dried stems of this much-loved plant.

Lavandula is a native of the Mediterranean foothills but it long since made the journey to Britain where it quickly became popular for its fragrance and healing properties.

Lavender is all things to all people, It has been used as a sedative to ease headaches, to counter insomnia, to aid digestion, to combat convulsions, to tackle nausea. It also has a reputation as a tonic, to fight chills, to prevent hair loss, to relieve rheumatism, to ease burns and once upon a time it was even used to embalm corpses.

And the dried flowers can be placed among clothes to deter moths, pressed into service in pot pourri, soap and perfumes. A lavender bath is supposed to soothe away aches and pains and relax to the point of sleep.

It's a wonderful plant with a wonderful array of uses. Yet most people grow it just for its flowers and aroma.

It appreciates a limey soil but it will grow almost anywhere in full sun. It needs the heat to perform its best; place it in the shade and it will still flower, but poorly.

There are numerous varieties of lavender, from the old English favourite, L officinalis, with its bushy stems and grey-green leaves, to L stoechas, the French lavender, with intense purple flowers. There are even pink-flowering forms such as 'Loddon Pink'.

Over the years, a lavender plant can become a dense shrub, so it pays to prune annually to keep growth in check and to encourage fresh flowers.

Once the blooms have faded, cut back all the green shoots to within an inch or two of the old wood. Remove damaged growth but never cut into mature wood.

Choose a few prunings and plant them in a cold frame where, with luck, they should eventually root.

YP MAG 15/1/11