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Pacific Northwest | June 27, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJune 27, 2004seattletimes.com home
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COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
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ON FITNESS
NORTHWEST LIVING
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON

Purple Haze
For comfort, perfume and long bloom, look to lavender
 
 Photo
STEVE RINGMAN / SEATTLE TIMES FILE
The rabbit-eared shape of Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas pedunculata) looks more like a cartoon character than a fragrant, long-blooming, drought-tolerant addition to the garden. One of the first lavenders to bloom, it's also one of the more tender species.
LAST SUMMER I was driving to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and ended up on Egg Lake Road. I rounded a corner and came upon the extravagant sight of rows and rows of dark purple folded neatly into a hillside rising up from a blue bay. It was Pelindaba Lavender Farm, looking more like an advertisement for Provence than anything you'd expect on a Northwest island mere yards from chilly Puget Sound. But there it is, a thriving organic farm where lavender's essential oils are extracted for candles and lotions, and people come to buy plants and pick armloads of aromatic wands.

It seems that lavender farms are studding the landscape wherever the mountains cast their rain shadow to create the dry, warm conditions that encourage lavender bloom. Sequim and the surrounding Dungeness Valley, with less than 20 inches of rain a year, are billing themselves the lavender capital of North America. Whidbey Island's Lavender Wind Farm in Coupeville grows 3,500 lavender plants and features a lavender labyrinth.

Lavender, with its fragrant oils and Mediterranean good looks, evokes all the sensuality of summer. With our often cloudy climate, no wonder its flowering is cause for celebration. Hence the popularity of lavender festivals, where revelers can pick flowers from white through pink, violet and midnight purple, enjoy handcrafted products, attend a street fair (in Sequim) or (at Pelindaba) learn about lavender's long history as a healing and restorative plant.
 
JULIE NOTARIANNI / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Illustration Now In Bloom
Sweet peas (Lathyrus odorata) are at their blowsy peak in June before the weather grows too warm. Downy stems and blue-green leaflets support the heavy-flowering vines, laden with ruffled blossoms in shades from purest white to darkest purple. The flowers bloom longest and largest with a deeply dug, well-manured root run, regular watering and full sun. Brightly toned sweet peas like the orange and white 'Brian Clough' (above) and deeply lavender 'Eclipse' make a fine contrast mixed with the familiar pastel shades.
Despite is familiarity, lavender's versatility defies categorization in the landscape. It's one of the first plants that comes to mind for cottage gardens, growing beneath pink roses or tumbling through white pickets. British gardening doyenne Gertrude Jekyll trimmed her gardens in little lavender hedges. At the same time, it's easy to picture lavender as a mainstay of herb gardens, or growing in silvery gray clumps along sun-drenched Mediterranean terraces. Not too many plants reek of both English gardens and the Costa del Sol.

Lavender blossoms attract bees, perfume the air and dry beautifully. For most gardeners, however, lavender's main attractions are drought tolerance and long bloom time. While easy to grow, it has pretty strict requirements, and different species and cultivars tolerate varying amounts of cold. The healthiest lavender I've grown is willowy L. angustifolia 'Provence' planted in sandy fill and full sun up against the house, where it blooms for at least six weeks every summer and has to be clipped often to prevent it from swallowing an entire pathway. But in late winter when lavender is at its rattiest, it resents being clipped too hard. Avoid cutting into the old wood; simply snip off the dead blossoms and shape the plant once the weather warms up in the spring.

Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas pedunculata) is one of the more tender species, and many were lost in last winter's freezes. But those planted in sheltered areas and well-drained soil came through, and it's worth trying for its charming rabbit-ear-shaped, two-toned flowers. English lavender, L. angustifolia, grows 3 feet high and a bit wider; 'Hidcote' is deep violet-blue and more compact, while 'Grosso' is the most fragrant and blooms July to September. 'Munstead Dwarf Strain' was selected by Jekyll herself, and stays short and tidy, ideal for edging and hedging.

All these types and more will be available to buy, pick and peruse at festivals and farms this summer. Among the choices:

• Sequim Lavender Festival is awash in products and plants from a number of growers; July 16-18; 877-681-3035, www.lavenderfestival.com.

• Pelindaba Harvest Festival, "Lavender in History and Lore"; July 10-11; 33 Hawthorne Lane, Friday Harbor, San Juan County 98250; 360-378-4248; www.pelindaba.com.

• Lavender Wind Farm; 2530 Darst Road, Coupeville Island County 98239; 877-242-7716;www.lavenderwind.com.

• Frog Rock Lavender Farm; 14414 Madison Ave. N.E., Bainbridge Island, 98110; 206-842-8761; www.frogrocklavender.com.

Even if you don't plan to buy (although just try to resist picking a pile), it's worth a trip to indulge in a little midsummer aromatherapy by submerging yourself in the middle of a bee-buzzing field of purple bloom.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

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