Purple haze

Lavender fields forever                                                     Piccadilly Pink/Flickr

Lavender fields forever                                                     Piccadilly Pink/Flickr

Every time I take in hand a smooth, heavy bar of real, bought-in-Paris French soap, I imagine myself in the sun-drenched hills of Provence.

It's the scent of lavender that sends me there, that clean, fresh, pungent, bracing fragrance. I can't get enough of it. It speaks to me of hot sun, flinty earth and languid breezes; it's the quintessential smell of summer.

Responsible for this unique fragrance is a volatile oil with more than 180 constituents, unduplicated by the chemistry of any other plant, according to Robert Kourik in "The Lavender Garden" (Chronicle Books). The New Age study of aromatherapy describes the scent of lavender as a "harmonizing agent," and recommends it for sleeplessness and headache, stress and mood swings.

But lavender doesn't need validation from 20th-century homeopaths. The Egyptians knew this woody shrub and used its oils in their mummification formulas. Phoenicians and Arabs of the ancient world perfumed themselves with lavender in the days before deodorant, and the Romans used it in perfumes, for bathing and as an air freshener.

The origins of this plant are unclear, but it probably traveled from the Near East to the Mediterranean regions of Europe, where it is still most completely at home. While we speak nostalgically of "English" lavender, it's primarily because the British colonists were the first to carry the plant to the New World, and not because lavender is indigenous to England.

Beloved over the centuries, lavender has garnered a wealth of pleasant associations. It is linked in various cultures to longevity and purification, happiness, peace and love.

That last may be no mere whimsy. Kourik tells us that a study by a Chicago research foundation discovered that the scent men find most arousing is neither musk nor rose, but a combination of lavender and pumpkin. (Hmmmm. Ladies - may I suggest pumpkin pie and lavender-scented sheets?)

As a garden subject, lavender is entirely satisfying. The long-lasting purple, rose or pink flower spikes are carried stiffly above gray or silvery foliage that does not die off in winter, so you can give it a prominent place, ideally near a path you use daily.

Mine, a low-growing specimen of the 'Hidcote' variety, dwells happily in my entry garden where it perfumes the air, especially on hot, muggy days. The butterflies adore it and don't seem to want to go home; they're out there for last call after the sun has set and only the porch lights show them the way to the heart of the deep purple blossoms.

Lavender bundles.                                                  David Biesack/Flickr

Lavender bundles.                                                  David Biesack/Flickr

Lavender is of easy culture, but you do have to keep in mind their native preferences.

They love the sun - the hotter the better - and they hate wet feet, so they need a coarse, well- drained and not too fertile soil. (Rich soil or frequent feeding will actually impair the accumulation of fragrant oils). They do like a fairly alkaline medium and will appreciate a handful of lime and perhaps some bone meal at planting time. Once established, drought doesn't faze them.

Another thing to bear in mind is that lavenders need a haircut from time to time. You can prune back hard in spring, being careful not to cut into the woody base stems, which won't produce new growth.

After the first flush of bloom, generally lasting from mid June to mid July, cut back flowering stems to the point where the gray foliage begins. You often will be rewarded with a second flowering; mine kept on rocking and rolling right into November last season, keeping the late-blooming roses company.

Lavenders are not long-lived plants, and eventually the center will become woody and unproductive, often splitting - a sign that the end is near. These woody sub-shrubs don't divide well, like herbaceous perennials. You can take stem cuttings in spring or summer, but it's much more reliable to order new plants or to raise some from seed. The recently introduced 'Lavender Lady' strain will reach blooming size the first year if seed is started early indoors.

There's quite a large choice in lavenders, ranging in size from the 12-inch 'Munstead' and 18-inch 'Hidcote' to the heavily scented 'English' or common lavender, which grows 3 feet tall and wide. 'Grosso,' or fat-spiked lavender, the strain grown in Provence, will run 16 inches tall, spreading to three feet or more.

Plants are readily available in spring from such outfits as W. Atlee Burpee Co., and Bluestone Perennials. Two terrific local sources are the Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 205 Mount Bethel Road, Port Murray and Pleasant Valley Lavender, 288 Pleasant Valley Road, Marlboro.

In addition to all their other good points, lavenders are virtually pest-proof and not on the menu for such garden scourges as deer, rabbits and woodchucks. Mine has gone unmolested since I put it in more than five years ago, which all by itself is cause for celebration.

As my supply of Parisian soap dwindles, I'm hanging bundles of sweet-scented lavender prunings around my screen porch, where the sun can cook the fragrance from them. When the soap is gone and my lavender quits for the season, I'll just have to go back to Paree.