For comfort, perfume and long bloom, look to lavender
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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