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Loving Lavender

The lavender farms of Southern Oregon are blooming with soft purple color and sweet fragrance this month, drawing visitors on a peaceful journey.

Lavender is an herb native to North Africa and the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean. Because of its pleasant fragrance and antiseptic properties, it's been used in baths for centuries, which is the reason for its name. The word lavender comes from the Latin word "lavare" — to wash. There are hundreds of varieties of lavender, a member of the mint family, and dozens of varieties are grown locally.

Distilling and craft making

Bonnie and John Rinaldi Jr. of Lavender Fields Forever in Jacksonville have been growing lavender since 2010. Open to the public during the lavender bloom in July and August, the farm's visitors can pick their own lavender or buy fresh-picked bundles. There is also a plethora of lavender products including sachets, lotions and soaps available for purchase. "We feel really blessed and wanted to share," Bonnie says of her lavender farm.

In the blooming season, the Rinaldis offer essential oil distilling and crafting sessions. For distilling, visitors pick lavender, de-bud it and then John and Bonnie walk them through the process of steam distillation, which results in essential oil and hydrosol — distilled lavender water. "They can mix and match for their own blended oil," John says of the different varieties of lavender available. "It takes about two hours."

The craft-making sessions are popular. "We pick the lavender and make wreaths or other projects," Bonnie says of her visitors. "We have a lovely morning or afternoon playing with the flowers."

During one craft-making session, a woman wanted to make every craft being taught. Her husband declined to participate and decided to relax by the Applegate River. He returned hours later telling them he'd fallen asleep enjoying the fragrance of the lavender and it was the best nap he'd ever had.

Calming and culinary benefits

Deborah and Jeff Thompson of Applegate Valley Lavender Farm near Grants Pass have been growing several varieties of lavender since 2005. Like the Rinaldis, the Thompsons also open their farm to the public during the lavender bloom in July and August, offering you-pick or pre-picked lavender, lavender products including Deborah's handmade soaps and crafting and distilling demonstrations.

Deborah professes the many benefits of lavender. She uses lavender oil for minor cuts and insect bites. Her sister uses it to reduce wrinkles. She and Jeff recently began using lavender as a sleep aid. Deborah rubs it on her temples at night and Jeff dabs it under his nose. Lavender sachets fill the bedroom with the sleep-inducing scent.

When Deborah goes to her doctor, she gets nervous and her blood pressure rises. The last time she went, she rubbed lavender oil on her pulse points before the nurse took her blood pressure reading. Her pressure was normal that time. She rubs it behind her ear and down her neck, on her temples and on the inside of her wrists. "That's the best way to calm you," she says.

Deborah also knows that lavender can be used in recipes from meat dishes to desserts. In 2010, she won first place in a cooking contest with a recipe from Sharon Shipley's "The Lavender Cookbook" — Butterscotch Pumpkin Muffins with Honey Lavender Butter. "I love to bake," she says. "I wanted to share with the world that you can bake with lavender." Deborah notes that Shipley's recipe called for Provence lavender, but she used English lavender. "I believe it could be a better option for some savory recipes," she says of Provence lavender, "but I still recommend English lavender for culinary recipes."

Even after years of growing lavender, Deborah remains enraptured with the sweet-scented herb. "I'm still in awe of lavender," she says. "For this one particular plant to do so many things is just amazing. It has so many benefits."

Natural medicine

Lavender oil has antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it helpful in treating minor burns and insect bites and stings. It's also believed to slow down the central nervous system, so it's often used to help with anxiety and insomnia. Some people use it as a pain reliever for headaches and toothaches.

Lissa McNiel, a naturopathic physician based in Medford, sometimes suggests using lavender in a calming tea blend or in supplements for mild anxiety. She notes that it's important to make sure you are using the correct type of lavender for your needs. Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) is the calming type of lavender. Lavandula latifolia (spike lavender) is the energizing type of lavender. "As long as you're getting a variety of angustifolia, you'll be OK," she says of people looking for a calming effect. "The last thing you want to do is buy spike lavender and be up at two in the morning." She advises buying medicinal grade, 100-percent essential oil.

The doctor also recommends using lavender oil for minor burns. "It can prevent scarring," she says. "It's right up there with aloe." She confirms that it's a healthy ingredient to use when bathing.

With its many medicinal uses, lavender is more than just a pretty flower with a nice fragrance. "I recommend it for general wellness," McNiel says.

Oregon Lavender Festival — July 12-13

Local lavender farms and nurseries welcome the public in July for the Oregon Lavender Festival. Each venue has different activities ranging from craft making to mini-festivals with music, food and vendors. Admission is free, so keep calm and carry on to your favorite lavender location. For more information vist: oregonlavenderdestinations.com/destinations-tour.php

Loving Lavender