Friday, June 8, 2012

the color lavender

I've mentioned lavender several times in this blog, and have been trying to write today's post since February, when I set out the four-inch pot of white lavender we'd brought back from a fancy nursery in Oceanside.

After three months in the ground, the white lavender looks healthy but has dropped all its little blossoms. On-line gardening sites tell me it takes three months for a lavender plant to acclimate itself. Spanish White Lavender will spread along the ground once it's well established, and then bloom in spring and fall. This growth pattern will suit me fine. Our four other lavenders have been trained to stand as trees (see aftermath) , and could use something to hide their knobby knees. I visualize a little girl's light green cotton anklets with white lace ruffles.

If you think of lavender as a color (defined precisely by the Pantone people as PMS 15-3817) , white lavender is an oxymoron. But then the old song goes: "Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green." In fact, this lyric describes the hues of my English Lavender pretty well (perhaps a periwinkle blue, though). My French Lavender's flowers are closer to the Pantone standard for the color Lavender, and my two Spanish Lavenders bloom in a bright pink, not quite cerise.

So just what is lavender, anyway? The word can refer to a plant, a color, or a scent. It can connote an age group or a sexual orientation, and that's not all, according to Wikipedia's disambiguation* entry.

Focusing on the plant will actually lead us back to the color. Wikipedia handles the botany in great detail, differentiating the dentate English and French lavenders from their stoechas Spanish cousins. (The stoechas blossoms are shaped like little pineapples.) But when it comes to etymology I must quote a whole paragraph:
The English word lavender is generally thought to be derived from Old French lavandre, to wash, ultimately from the Latin lavare (to wash), referring to the use of infusions of the plants. The botanic name Lavandula was used by Linnaeus [and] 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".
Can it be that Linnaeus missed something? The English song "Lavender's Blue" comes from the 17th century, but Linnaeus, an 18th-century Swede, evidently did not know it. Nor did he know that the Greeks and Romans did not employ lavender infusion as a laundry product. (Just think of how much better those togas could have smelled!)

This week I drastically pruned our English Lavender tree and filled a green-waste bin to the brim. Aromatherapy awaits anyone who lifts the lid.

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* This word is new to me. Wiktionary defines it as "the removal of ambiguity," which sounds like heresy! Clearly, a posting on the 'old' school of New Criticism must be forthcoming here.

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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License