The same climate and soil that make Southern Oregon ideal for growing grapes provide great conditions for cultivating lavender, and a cluster of lavender growers are working to turn those conditions to their advantage.
"It prefers harsh climates with good drainage and hot, dry summers," says John Rinaldi, whose Applegate Valley farm is called Lavender Fields Forever. "A very drought-tolerant plant, it originated in the Mediterranean region — Greece and Italy."
What: Oregon Lavender Festival
When: Friday through Sunday, July 12-14
Where: Goodwin Creek Farms, 970 Cedar Flat Road, Williams; 541-846-7357
Two Sisters Lavender Farm, 540 Lofland Lane, Williams; 541-659-3627
Applegate Valley Lavender Farm, 15370 Highway 238, Provolt; 541-291-9229
Lavender Fields Forever, 375 Hamilton Road, Ruch; 541-324-4223; Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point; 541-776-7371
Cost: Tours are free; cost to pick lavender may vary by farm, but expect in the neighborhood of $5 per bundle of about 150 stems; some activities have additional fees
Activities: Friday, 10 a.m. to noon, kids plein-air watercolor landscapes, ages 7 to 14, $12, Applegate Valley Lavender Farm; Saturday, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., oil-distillation demonstration at Lavender Fields Forever; 2 to 4 p.m., lavender botanical illustration postcards, ages 5 and older, free, at Goodwin Creek Gardens; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., kids plein-air watercolor landscapes, ages 7 to 14, $12, Applegate Valley Lavender Farm.
Information: See www.oregon lavenderdestinations.org/festival.php
Six Southern Oregon lavender farms have joined together to create the Southern Oregon Lavender Loop, and two more farms are expected to join them next year. The farms are open for weekend tours throughout July and August.
John and Bonnie Rinaldi are the newest of the local commercial lavender farmers to open their gates to the public. Their farm boasts seven varieties of the aromatic plant.
The Southern Oregon farmers hope to gain even more exposure this week, when they'll join lavender growers around the state in showcasing their farms and products on Friday-Sunday, July 12-14, during the Oregon Lavender Festival. It's a statewide promotion aimed at celebrating the more than 200 varieties and 28 species of lavender being grown. The Rinaldis, along with three other Applegate Valley farms and the Oregon State University Extension Service's lavender demonstration garden in Central Point, will open their farms for the event.
While visiting some of the farms, visitors can pick lavender, distill lavender oil, purchase lavender bouquets and plants and shop farm stores for lavender products.
Although the biggest market worldwide for lavender is essential oil, utilized for its soothing and calming properties, the uses appear to be limitless.
Lotions, shortbread cookies, honey, syrup and chocolate are only a few of the products Deborah Thompson sells at the Applegate Valley Lavender Farm on Route 238 near Provolt.
"My kids make lavender margaritas — the first night we harvest, they put them in the blender," Thompson says. "It's also very well known for lamb, and Herb de Provence has lavender in it. If you're looking for good recipes, I recommend 'Discovering Cooking With Lavender' by Kathy Gehrt."
What's the best variety for cooking?
"It's like wine tasting, you've got to have somebody sample each one of them, because there are so many of them," Thompson declares.
Among the varieties at her farm, Thompson uses Royal Purple or Royal Velvet for sweet dishes. Brides, she's found, like the sweet smell of Royal Velvet best and will sometimes throw it at their weddings as an aromatic alternative to rice.
Visiting lavender farms is often more than a trip to save money by purchasing directly from the farm.
"People come out for two different reasons," Thompson explains. "There's the buyer who wants the lavender oil and will drive to get it, and there's the one who just wants to stand in the middle of the field and experience it."
For those who want the experience and have an hour or two, John and Bonnie Rinaldi charge $40 to make your own lavender essential oil from U-pick flowers, which includes the bottles to store the liquid.
"We have a still that we're going to utilize for people who U-pick and fill the basket and distill their own oil," says John Rinaldi, "So you can blend your own lavender oil from different varieties — it takes about one hour."
The distilling process, says John, is similar to making moonshine. The lavender is steamed in a metal basket, and the water and oil are condensed in a coil of copper pipe.
"We bring them into the barn and you trim the flowers; this is another way people can distinguish their blend," explains Bonnie Rinaldi. "The leaves, the stalks and the flowers all have oil. If you use flowers, you get a more floral fragrance at the end. If you use more leaf, you have a more green, woodsy, camphory smell, so it depends on how you want to use your oil. Some people want the oil for camphor because they're using it for insect repellent or for sachets."
Oil rises to the top and is skimmed off and saved. The water contains lavender compounds and can be used in a mister for freshening air or laundry. This "hydrosol" is more diluted and is produced in greater quantities than the essential oil. For every quart of the lavender water, you get 10 milliliters of oil. And all this from five pounds of flowers.
Like wine, lavender oil improves and sweetens with age. If you're interested primarily in oil, all lavender species are not created equal.
The varieties from the species Lavendula angustifolia are known as English lavenders. They bloom earlier and are favored for culinary purposes. Varieties from the hybrid species Lavendula x intermedia bloom later and are heavier oil producers.
"Grosso is the standard," says John Rinaldi of the variety from the x intermedia species, which is grown at his farm. "Seventy percent of the lavender in the world is Grosso."
While lavender farms in the Provence region of France will cover as much as 10,000 acres, he and Bonnie began their operation by planting 1,000 plants nearly two years ago. This year marks their first harvest.
You'll find seven varieties each on the Rinaldi and Thompson farms, including Miss Catherine, Hidcote Giant, French Fields and Betty's Blue.
If you're an avid botanist, you won't want to miss OSU Extension's lavender demonstration garden at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center on Hanley Road in Central Point, which features 80 varieties, all labeled. During the Oregon Lavender festival, Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer questions. The garden is also open daily during the week for self-guided tours.
The antibacterial and antifungal properties of lavender have been known for hundreds of years, and Deborah Thompson has found that it's not only two-legged animals that benefit.
"I put it in my sheep stalls," she says. "I take out all the old material and lay down lavender for odor. It's also a disinfectant against flies and bugs, and you get happy lambs. I did it with my chickens, just to give it a try. Egg production was up."
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at email@example.com.