Is Lavender Considered a Flower, Herb, or Shrub?
Are you curious to find out if lavender is considered a flower, an herb, or a shrub? Could it actually be considered all three? In this article, gardeninge expert and former lavnender farmer Logan Hailey examines the nurances between all the titles that people assign to this popular plant.
With its soothing aroma and delicate purple blossoms, lavender is a staple in any garden. It has been coveted for thousands of years thanks to its versatile culinary, ornamental, medicinal, and aromatherapy uses.
Growing this Mediterranean native is not particularly difficult, but it does require a basic understanding of the plant’s physiology. Should it be treated as a bush or a shrub? Is it annual or perennial? Is it a flower or an herb?
Classifying this traditional beauty can be a bit confusing. Depending on the climate, pruning practices, and gardener’s preferences, lavender can have a range of different growth habits and uses. Let’s dig into the nuances behind lavender’s identity as a flower, herb, and/or shrub.
The Short Answer
Lavender is technically a flower, herb, and a shrub. It is a flowering semi-woody herbaceous shrub often used as an herb in the kitchen or traditional medicine cabinet.
Lavender is an herbaceous perennial, which means it has evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage that dies back to the ground in the winter and resprouts in the spring. It is often pruned to look like a mound-shaped shrub that can blend seamlessly with other ornamental plants like rosemary and rhododendrons.
The Long Answer
The terms “flower”, “herb”, and “shrub” each have a multitude of meanings in the garden. They can be interpreted and assigned in different ways, depending on how a plant is tended and where it is being grown. However, human classifications of plants can get a little bit blurry since nature tends to work on her own terms.
To understand why it’s considered a trio plant –a flower, herb, and shrub– we have to dig into the nuances of this popular plant’s growth and genetics.
Defining a Flower
In the simplest terms, a flower is the reproductive organ of a plant. These showy, colorful, and often fragrant blossoms evolved specifically to help the plant reproduce.
In the case of lavender, the plant evolved specific aromatic compounds called terpenoids to simultaneously entice pollinators and repel herbivores that might eat the plant.
Flowers Help Plants Reproduce
Lavender flowers are shaped like spikes with whorls of flowers growing in rings. Bees, butterflies, and other insects help move pollen from the stamen (male flower parts) to the pistil (female part) of each flower.
Once pollinated, a flower withers and produces fruits or capsules that hold seeds to help the plant create more baby plants of its kind. Seeds form inside the flower heads after they dry.
In the garden, we often refer to varieties of flowering plants simply as “flowers”. Daisies, roses, lilies, sunflowers, and daffodils are some of the most commonly recognized flowers. However, flowering is technically only one part of these plants’ lifecycles.
The blooming and seeding portion is the reproductive phase. It typically comes after periods of vegetative growth in which the plant focuses on establishing its roots, stems, and leaves.
About Flowering Plants
In botanical terms, plants that produce flowers are called Angiosperms. These blooming beauties evolved specifically alongside their pollinator and animal allies. There are over 300,000 species of flowering plants on Earth today, making them the largest and diverse group in the kingdom Plantae.
While many of us think of flowers as the most common plants on the planet, they are actually fairly young in the grand scheme of things.
Flowering plants didn’t come along until the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago, whereas nonflowering Gymnosperms (coniferous plants like pines) have been around for over 350 million years. Before that, the Earth was mostly populated by ferns, horsetails, and mosses, which spread by spores rather than seeds.
All biological jargon aside, a flower is only one part of a plant that is specifically grown to help a plant reproduce. As a member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family of flowering plants, lavender fits the bill for an Angiosperm. It consistently flowers every year with its coveted aromatic blooms that we humans have come to love just as much as bees do.
Defining an Herb
Lavender can fit the definition of an herb in two ways: a culinary/medicinal herb and an herbaceous plant.
As a Culinary Herb
The term “herb” is most commonly associated with culinary herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro, or rosemary. Herbal remedies also include herbs used historically for therapeutic qualities.
While you’ll often find lavender in healing teas and delicious Herbes de Provence seasoning blends, its herbal qualities go far beyond the kitchen.
As a Semi-Woody Herbaceous Plant
Botanically speaking, an herb is an annual, biennial, or perennial plant that doesn’t develop persistent woody stems. The above-ground plant parts typically die back to the ground in the winter and regrow in the spring.
Examples include annual vegetables like carrots, spinach, and lettuce, as well as ornamental plants like Black-eyed susans, echinacea, and peonies.
Lavender is technically a “semi-woody” herbaceous plant because it still accumulates some woody twigs and stems, but it doesn’t grow a persistent trunk the way that a tree does. Depending on how you prune it, you can promote more herbaceous (soft leafy and floral growth) while preventing “woodiness”. Forgetting to prune regularly may result in more woody growth.
In northern climates, many varieties of lavender die back to the ground and wait dormant in the soil before re-sprouting in the spring. In Mediterranean and warmer climates, lavender can be grown as a perennial that keeps evergreen foliage year-round.
Defining a Shrub
A shrub is a woody or semi-woody perennial plant that has several stems growing from its base. Shrubs are smaller than trees and are typically pruned to maintain a certain shape in the garden. As opposed to wild bushes, shrubs tend to be manicured for a specific shape.
When it is grown as a perennial, lavender can fit the definition of a shrub because it develops multiple semi-woody stems from the base. When the herbaceous part of the plant dies back, these woody parts persist through the winter.
Familiar ornamental garden shrubs include:
- Mountain Laurel
Some shrubs are deciduous (such as viburnums or azaleas), while others are evergreen (like holly plants and mountain laurels). In zones 7-9, lavender tends to be an evergreen perennial shrub that keeps its foliage year-round.
In zones 4-6, lavender is a deciduous semi-woody shrub. Once again, the overall shape and growth habits of the plant will depend on how you care for it.
Tips for Keeping Lavender from Getting Woody
If you want your lavender plant to grow more as an herbaceous non-woody shrub, here are a few secrets for promoting more leaf and flower growth:
Prune Twice a Year
Pruning is the most important way to prevent leggy, woody growth on lavender plants. Experienced growers typically prune one in the spring (after the first flush of flowers) and again in the fall. The autumn pruning is a “harder” prune that removes up to one-third of the plant’s new branches. This helps encourage more root development over the winter and a bushier, softer regrowth in the spring.
Lavender is remarkably resilient and actually thrives in sandy or rocky soils with minimum fertility. If you want to keep the plant as a tidy shrub, avoid adding an fertilizer to the soil.
Choose The Right Variety
There are over 450 unique varieties of lavender, each adapted to specific regions and conditions. In order to enjoy the most aesthetically-pleasing lavender shrub possible, you’ll need to choose a variety suitable for your region.
As you can tell, lavender can be a bit difficult to classify because it seems to fit partially into multiple different categories. Let’s recap.
- It is definitely a flower because it belongs to the Lamiaceae (mint family).
- That means it’s part of the Angiosperm (flowering plant) group.
- Lavender is also considered an herb.
- This is because it is used as a culinary seasoning and it has herbaceous growth.
- Lastly, it’s also considered a shrub because it has semi-woody bushy growth.
- The growth stays low to the ground and can be pruned in a specific shape.
Regardless of how you define it, lavender is a joy to have in the garden and in your home. It can have many uses, the least of which just being a vibrant, ornamental flower that smells great!