Lavender is an evergreen perennial that indigenous to southern Europe and the mountain regions located on the western border of the Mediterranean, as well as North and East Africa, Arabia, India, and the Canary Islands, although it is now cultivated world-wide for commercial and personal use. Today, lavender is grown in Tasmania, Spain, Italy, England, China, Australia and, of course, southern France, where centuries of cultivation have produced some of the most highly developed forms of the plant.
There are more than 20 different species of lavender and -- because of its popularity and long history of cultivation -- numerous cultivars and hybrids as well. The various lavenders vary in habit, flower, color and fragrance. The three most important lavenders commercially are: true lavender, spike lavender and lavandin.
True Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, officinalis, vera)
True lavender (also known as common lavender or English lavender) is the variety that comes to mind when one thinks of elegant English gardens. This plant features narrow leaves, short, crooked stems, and barrel-shaped (rather than spiked) flowers. Its sweet, floral scent of true lavender (and essential oil made from it) provides a variety of aromatherapy properties, ranging from soothing, calming, and relaxing, to normalizing, balancing, and healing.
Spike Lavender (Lavandula spica, latifolia)
Spike lavender is a coarser plant, with broader leaves than true lavender. While this variety yields up to three times the amount of essential oil as true lavender, the scent is less highly prized. The oil from spike lavender flowers has a eucalyptus-like aroma, akin to a combination of eucalyptus and lavender. It is used to scent room sprays, deodorants, soaps, disinfectants, insect repellents, and other products, and it complements these products with its purifying characteristics.
Lavandin (L. x intermedia)
Lavandin, also sometimes known as Dutch lavender, is a hybrid plant, the result of a natural cross-pollination of true lavender and spike lavender. While lavandin is a hardy plant, it is also sterile and therefore must be reproduced with cuttings rather than seeds. These plants have larger leaves, longer stems, and larger flowers that are pointed at the tip. Because the flowers are beautiful, vibrantly colored, and long-lasting, they are often used in herbal crafts and potpourris. Lavandin, like spike lavender, also yields more oil than true lavender, and while it is often used to scent products ranging from massage oils and body care products to perfumes, toiletries, and household products, its oil imparts a woody, spicy-green, camphor aroma quite different from true lavender. In addition, while the scent is strong, it is not very long-lasting. Lavandin offers balancing, clarifying, and purifying aromatherapeutic benefits.Although useful in its own right, lavandin is not a legitimate substitute for true lavender or its aromaterapy properties.