Lavandula (common name Lavender) is a genus of 39 species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is native to the Old World and is found from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, southern Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India. Many members of the genus are cultivated extensively in temperate climates as ornamental plants for garden and landscape use, for use as culinary herbs, and also commercially for the extraction of essential oils. The most widely cultivated species, Lavandula angustifolia is often referred to as lavender, and there is a colour named for the shade of the flowers of this species.
The genus includes annual or short-lived herbaceous perennial plants, and suffrutescent perennials, subshrubs or small shrubs.
Leaf shape is diverse across the genus. They are simple in some commonly cultivated species; in others they are pinnately toothed, or pinnate, sometimes multiple pinnate and dissected. In most species the leaves are covered in fine hairs or indumentum, which normally contain the essential oils.
Flowers are borne in whorls, held on spikes rising above the foliage, the spikes being branched in some species. Some species produce coloured bracts at the apices. The flowers may be blue, violet or lilac in the wild species, occasionally blackish purple or yellowish. The calyx is tubular. The corolla is also tubular, usually with five lobes (the upper lip often cleft, and the lower lip has two clefts).
Nomenclature and taxonomy
L. stoechas, L. pedunculata and L. dentata were known in Roman times. From the Middle Ages onwards, the European species were considered two separate groups or genera, Stoechas (L. stoechas, L. pedunculata, L. dentata) and Lavandula (L. spica and L. latifolia), until Linnaeus combined them. He only recognised five species in Species Plantarum (1753), L. multifida and L. dentata (Spain) and L. stoechas and L. spica from Southern Europe. L. pedunculata was included within L. stoechas.
By 1790 L. pinnata and L. carnosa were recognised. The latter was subsequently transferred to Anisochilus. By 1826 Frédéric Charles Jean Gingins de la Sarraz listed 12 species in three sections, and by 1848 eighteen species were known.
One of the first modern major classifications was that of Dorothy Chaytor in 1937 at Kew. The six sections she proposed for 28 species still left many intermediates that could not easily be assigned. Her sections included Stoechas, Spica, Subnudae, Pterostoechas, Chaetostachys and Dentatae. However all the major cultivated and commercial forms resided in the Stoechas and Spica sections. There were four species within Stoechas (Lavandula stoechas, L. dentata, L. viridis and L. pedunculata) while Spica had three (L. officinalis (now L. angustifolia), L. latifolia and L. lanata). She believed that the garden varieties were hybrids between true lavender L. angustifolia and spike lavender (L. latifolia).
More recently work has been done by Upson and Andrews, and currently Lavandula is considered to have three subgenera.
- Subgenus Lavandula is mainly of woody shrubs with entire leaves. It contains the principal species grown as ornamental plants and for oils. They are found across the Mediterranean region to northeast Africa and western Arabia.
- Subgenus Fabricia consists of shrubs and herbs, and it has a wide distribution from the Atlantic to India. It contains some ornamental plants.
- Subgenus Sabaudia constitutes two species in the southwest Arabian peninsula and Eritrea, which are rather distinct from the other species, and are sometimes placed in their own genus Sabaudia.
In addition there are numerous hybrids and cultivars in commercial and horticultural usage.
The English word lavender is generally thought to be derived from Old French lavandre, ultimately from the Latin lavare (to wash), referring to the use of infusions of the plants. The botanic name Lavandula as used by Linnaeus is considered to be derived from this and other European vernacular names for the plants. However it is suggested that this explanation may be apocryphal, and that the name may actually be derived from Latin livere, "blueish".
The names widely used for some of the species, "English lavender", "French lavender" and "Spanish lavender" are all imprecisely applied. "English lavender" is commonly used for L. angustifolia, though some references say the proper term is "Old English Lavender". The name "French lavender" may be used to refer to either L. stoechas or to L. dentata. "Spanish lavender" may be used to refer to L. stoechas, L. lanata or L. dentata.