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Lavender fields forever: Sequim, in the Olympic Peninsula’s rain shadow, is the lavender capital of North America

By Andrea Sachs Washington Post

At Victor’s Lavender Farm, my nose was inches from its target, a cluster of purple buds as fragrant as a French perfumery, when a commanding voice called out from behind the planters.

“Not those,” warned an employee with a crisp English accent.

In Sequim, Washington, the lavender capital of North America, I had chewed, sipped and crunched the aromatic shrub; face-scrubbed and body-soaked in it; and cooked and cleaned with it. I had leveled its stems with scissors, pinched its buds with my pincers and hung it upside down like a trapeze artist without a net. After taking so many liberties with lavender, I had finally stumbled on a line I dared not cross.

“Don’t buy Spanish lavender. You can find it everywhere,” advised Sarah Donaldson, one of the farm’s lavender experts, as I backed away from the specimen with dimpled buds. “Look at the French and English varieties.”

She motioned toward hundreds of lavender plants – make that hundreds of English and French lavender plants – their tiny heads bobbing in the breeze as if in agreement.

If Provence is the sun king of lavender fields, then Sequim is the rain shadow queen. The Sequim-Dungeness Valley, about 65 miles northwest of Seattle, has the highest concentration of lavender plants in North America, according to the Sequim Lavender Growers Association. This summer, 16 farms are open during blooming season (if not longer), roughly Memorial Day through Labor Day, depending on the variety. During the Sequim Lavender Weekend, which falls on the third weekend of July, additional growers, artisans and lavenderphiles participate in the annual celebration.

“We are America’s Provence,” said Jordan Schiefen, who owns and runs Jardin du Soleil Lavender Farm with her husband, Paul. “You’re transported to another place.”

Sequim’s lavender industry is a curious attraction in this corner of the Pacific Northwest. The fragrant shrub typically flourishes in sunny and dry environments, such as southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It thrives here because of the Olympic Mountains, which act like a defensive line, blocking the storms from the Pacific Ocean.

This meteorological phenomenon, called a rain shadow, creates a climate similar to the Mediterranean’s, with minimal rainfall (on average, 16 inches a year in Sequim, whereas nearby Port Angeles can receive up to 30 inches) and the sandy, drought-resistant soil that lavender favors. Many of the farmers told me, with a mix of pride and awe, that they had watered their plants the first year and never again.

Cultures from as far back as 2,500 years ago used lavender to combat infestations, infections, insomnia and strong odors, among other ills. Its history in Sequim is much shorter and less homeopathic. In the mid-1990s, civic leaders floated the idea of introducing agritourism to the area and chose lavender as the star crop. (The earlier farming industries, dairy cows and peas, didn’t have the same appeal.) In 1995, five lavender farms opened; two years later, the festival debuted.

Homemade lavender products arrived around the same time, and the sheer variety and volume would knock the sandals off the plant’s original customers in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Today, Sequim visitors can stock up on essential oils, lotions, soaps, candles, cookies, bath salts, spices, teas, honey, body mists, sachets, multipurpose cleaners, eye masks, body wraps, dried bouquets and live plants. The herb also appears in ice cream, hot and cold beverages, balsamic vinegar and cocktails.

“You can use lavender literally from the inside out,” said Cedarbrook Lavender & Herb Farm co-owner Ashley Possin.

Sequim (pronounced “Squim”) is a petite 6.3 square miles and home to about 8,200 residents, many of whom enthusiastically wave – full palm – at passersby. Lavender bushes line the main street like squat spectators cheering on road racers. I appreciated the support because I was on a marathon, of sorts. My goal for that week in early July was to consume as much lavender as I could. If all went well, my bug bites would no longer itch, my cheeks would glow and my sneakers would smell like a florist shop.

Most important, I would feel tranquil, as I floated on a bed of lavender with what I hoped would have the retention properties of a memory foam mattress.

“Lavender [oil] is antibacterial and antimicrobial. It helps you sleep and makes your skin feel like silk,” Possin said, “and it’s calming.”

I started the morning as I often do – with coffee – but with a twist of Sequim. While the barista at Hurricane Coffee Co. foamed the oat milk for my lavender latte, I wondered which ingredient would tag my neurotransmitters first: the stimulating caffeine or the soothing lavender. (After a few sips, I felt serenely energized.) The lavender ice cream wasn’t available yet, and because it wasn’t 5 p.m. anywhere in North America, I couldn’t rationalize a lavender lemon drop at Salty Girls Sequim Seafood Co. However, across the street, I discovered a nearly intact tray of lavender peach cupcakes at That Takes the Cake.

“Peach has light lavender and chocolate has medium to heavy lavender,” said co-owner Paul Boucher, explaining the difference between today’s and yesterday’s flavors. “You want the combination to be a good marriage and not overwhelming.”

The Sequim Lavender Experience, a consortium of local businesses and enterprises, produced a free brochure with a map of the Sequim Lavender Trail. Downtown is just a few blocks long, and I hit up several stops along Washington Street. At Forage Gifts & Northwest Treasures, I asked the owner if she could point out her lavender items. She demurred and suggested I try the lavender farm stores, which sell items infused with their own harvest. I thanked her for her generous community spirit by buying up her lavender inventory: a candle, a sticker and a cedar puzzle of giant buds.

Only one farm is within city limits, Purple Haze Lavender, one of the original five. The others sit on the outskirts of town, strung together like charms on a loose bracelet. Though they all have lavender in common, each property is unique, a reflection of the owners who are young couples and families, first-generation farmers and seasoned growers who have spent a lifetime coaxing beauty out of the hardscrabble terrain.

“We were living the corporate life, working in insurance,” Schiefen, of Jardin du Soleil, said when I asked whether she had a farming background. “We had one lavender plant in Santa Barbara [in California] and gardeners who cared for it.”

Ten years into their (ad)venture, the Schiefens now run the only organic-certified lavender farm in Sequim. The telltale sign: no black tarps under the plants, which means they have to weed. Their 10-acre farm, on which dairy cows once roamed and free-range chickens now strut, features four varieties of lavender, a mix of French, which is used in body and bath products (because of the presence of camphor), and English, which ends up in culinary products (milder and more palatable). Later, a tour guide at B&B Family Lavender Farm would share an easy method for remembering the difference: French is fragrant, English is edible.

Inside the farm store, Paul led an informal sniff test of essential oils, which he distills in an old milking barn on the property. I inhaled Grosso, Maillette and super varieties, picking up on the subtle – and aggressive – floral notes. “Oil smells different every year,” he said. “As it ages, it changes, very much like wine.”

After taking a spin through their shop, I determined that wine is the only product that has slipped the grip of lavender. So I ordered what was on the menu: a lavender raspberry Italian ice and a can of lavender cucumber seltzer.

I had wanted to spend the night in a lavender field, imagining the plants swaying me to sleep. On my first evening in Sequim, I bunked in a lavender-themed caboose at the Olympic Railway Inn, a collection of restored train cars. The railway car was tricked out in all things lavender. There was pastel bedding, sprigs of dried lavender in rustic containers, a lavender festival poster from 2006 and rosemary lavender hand soap by the kitchenette sink. And although the lavender field mural above the whirlpool tub was eye-catching, it sadly wasn’t scratch-and-sniff.

The George Washington Inn, a reproduction of Mount Vernon a few miles away in Port Angeles, is run by a couple who care as much about lavender as they do about George and Martha. Dan and Janet Abbott put me in the Surveyor Retreat room, which overlooks their lavender fields, a purple carpet unfurling toward the snow-dusted Olympic Mountains. (The views from my bathroom windows were equally stunning: the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Canada’s Vancouver Island.) The Abbotts had left a sachet on the bed and a small bouquet of freshly picked lavender on a table by the fireplace. At check-in, Dan told me to keep an eye out for even more lavender at breakfast. It could show up as a topper on fresh fruit, as seasoning in egg dishes or as a one-two punch in the rhubarb jam and biscuits.

“We bake Royal Velvet buds in the biscuits,” he said, referring to an English variety. “After eating lavender biscuits, you don’t want to go back to regular biscuits. They’re too boring.”

Janet is the creative force behind the lavender products, which she makes by hand and sells under the Martha’s Own label. To reach the front desk, I had to pass shelves packed with her oils, lotions and other elixirs.

On my second morning at the inn, I decided to bike to the farms. I was about to ask Dan for rental recommendations when I was derailed by a giant spider bite on my arm. Janet overheard my medical issues from the kitchen. “Use the Grosso,” she advised, without even needing to inspect my wound. I grabbed the tester off the counter, rolled the essential oil on the inflamed patch of skin and sighed with relief.

The nearly six-mile route from Ben’s Bikes to the farms on Old Olympic Highway was straightforward (three roads, three turns) and fairly flat.

Many of the properties allow visitors to cut their own bouquets. Farmers harvest with scythes; at Victor’s, I was handed a pair of injury-proof scissors. I grabbed a fistful of lavender and chopped away at the stems as if I were lopping off a ponytail. I returned to the checkout counter with my bounty and was immediately sent back into the field. “Come back with an adult-size fistful,” Donaldson instructed, “not a kid-size one.”

I loaded the bike’s carrier with the plants and pedaled off. I continued onward, to Rain Shadow Lavender Farm, which designed a labyrinth out of lavender, to B&B Family Lavender Farm, which leads free tours throughout the day, and to Fleurish Lavender of Lost Mountain, which has a sample garden with nearly 90 varieties, plus three alpacas that dispassionately regarded me between chews.

I returned to the inn assuming that I had reached my lavender saturation point. But then I met the Lavender Lady, who was weaving wands filled with buds and festooned with purple ribbons. She explained that the batons, a centuries-old French tradition, can stave off fleas, mice, rats, moles, scorpions and spiders; deodorize your bathroom; help you sleep; and calm your raw nerves. I’ll take three, I told her, preparing for whatever may come.

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