Looking for a pollinator plant? Looking for a pollinator plant that will please your clients as much as bees and butterflies and hummingbirds?

Lavender.

Let me start with a disclaimer: I have absolutely nothing against other species of lavender; in fact, they’re all appealing in that gotta-have-it way. But for my Zone 5, upper Midwest garden, English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most reliable and hardiest. I’ve grown several varieties of Spanish and French lavender (L. stoechas, L. intermedia, among others), but always in containers on the sunny front steps, and always because I find it nearly impossible to walk away from a pot of lavender. The plants that have a permanent home in the back and side yard are the English variety.

Lavandula angustifolia

COMMON NAME: English Lavender

HARDINESS: Zones 5 to 8

MATURE HEIGHT: 2 to 3 feet

MATURE SPREAD: 2 to 3 or 4 feet

CLASSIFICATION: Herbaceous perennial

LANDSCAPE USE: Mixed perennial garden; groundcover; at front or middle of a border garden; herb garden; attracting pollinators

ORNAMENTAL CHARACTERISTICS: Long, square stems support gray-green foliage and are topped by purple to blue-purple flower spikes.

By no means is lavender an underused plant, but its versatility sometimes is overlooked in favor of its iconic fragrance and flower production. In addition to its use as a groundcover or focal point, it’s often dried for potpourri, for culinary purposes (superb in shortbread; delicious in potato salad), and for use in lotions and in homeopathic medicine.

In the garden, however, it’s a magnet for bees and butterflies – and a few hummingbirds. It’s also resistant to browsing by rabbits, deer and even the geese that occasionally wander through my patio and pluck away at other unfortunate plants.

Its distinctive scent is known to induce drowsiness, and during a tour of nurseries in the Portland, Oregon, area, I visited a lavender farm one unusually hot afternoon. As soon as several of us stepped off the small bus, we were overwhelmed by the fragrance. We walked the fields, visited a drying barn and then sat down to lunch under a large tent, where we enjoyed a meal whose every element was infused with lavender. After about an hour or so, we were called back to the vehicle – but a few visitors had to be roused from their snooze at the table. And none of us wanted to leave.

L. angustifolia grows to neat mounds about 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, composed of long, slender, squared stems that support narrow, gray-green leaves. Depending on the cultivar, foliage may appear grayish or blue-gray, and leaves may be as long as 2 to 2.5 inches. If the leaves appear to fade or show a yellowish cast, it’s a good sign that the plants have been overwatered.

Purple to blue-purple flowers top the stems in proud, terminal spikes, usually lasting several weeks from late spring into early and mid-summer. Deadheading can sometimes encourage a lesser flush of flowers in early fall, but in my experience, a later bloom is somewhat sporadic. In warmer hardiness zones, L. angustifolia is evergreen; in my yard in the Chicagoland area, the stems and foliage simply appear skeletal in winter. Cut back in spring, however, they happily recover and flush out to a robust mound.

There’s a rumor floating around that lavender is maintenance-free – which, of course, is not true. During its first season, it should be supplied with ample moisture – be careful not to overwater – and once established, it’s relatively drought-tolerant. Well-drained soil is a must, and I add just a bit of sand to my heavy clay soil to encourage root growth. Lavender doesn’t really like high humidity, but planting in a rock garden or using pebbles or rock as part of a mulch layer helps to keep the plants happy.

English lavender can be propagated from cuttings; I’ve done this several times when a friend has brazenly threatened to steal a plant or two, but for my own purposes, I simply buy another. There’s always room for more.