When you think of lavender, artisanal soap and soothing candles might first spring to mind. Or maybe you envision the rolling purple hills of Provence. But many people don’t realize that some of the best lavender in the world is grown right here in Southern California, and from May to July you can experience the stunning and restorative beauty of this ancient herb first-hand at farms and festivals throughout the region.
For this brief period of the year, you can tour the fields of places like Keys Creek Lavender Farm in northern San Diego county, Frog Creek Lavender Farm in Ojai, or Clairmont Farms in Los Olivos; celebrate the drought-friendly herb at the Ojai Valley Lavender Festival or the festival at 123 Farm in the Inland Empire; and even indulge in spa getaways at nearby Highland Springs Ranch. As someone who’s a recent convert to the the calming effects and myriad of benefits of lavender, I can attest that seeing and smelling the beautiful plants up-close is worth the trip.
“I find most people are surprised and excited to find an organic lavender farm in Southern California,” says Alicia Wolff, owner of Keys Creek Lavender Farm. “They express their relief that they don't have to travel to Provence. Lavender is the most versatile of all essential oils and is a natural antibacterial and disinfectant. It helps with sleep, sunburn, migraines, menstrual cramps, insect bites, bug repellent, repels moths when used in linen closets, is calming and the list goes on.”
Keys Creek is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays for high bloom season during May and June, and they offer tours on the weekends — though purchasing tickets in advance is recommended. You can still visit the farm during the off-season, but you’ll have to make an appointment. The farm also offers high tea with lavender scones and cookies during the season, as well as healing and yoga retreats, classes and workshops, and hosts private parties and getaways. Guests can also enjoy a meditation garden, crystal labyrinth or even plant a lavender plant in the peace garden. South African-born Wolff says she was inspired to create a place where visitors could feel connected to the earth and wander through eight-and-a-half acres of lavender featuring more than a dozen varieties and over 20,000 plants.
While you may think of lavender as just one plant, there are actually more than 30 species, dozens of subspecies, and hundreds of cultivars and hybrids, and it’s actually part of the mint family. Most commonly though, lavender grows as a squat, woody shrub with grayish-green leaves and a tall stem with vibrant purple flowers, though sometime they can be white or pink.
Wolff explains that healing, sustainability, community and volunteerism are all part of the mission of the Keys Creek Lavender Farm as well, and the farm dedicates resources to fundraising in support of causes such as children in South Africa affected by HIV/AIDS, cancer research and even horse rescue. “The color Lavender supports awareness to all cancers,” says Wolff. The farm also sells over fifty lavender-related products, both at the farm and online, including ones that help with joint and muscle pain, arthritis, sleep and a unique burn gel.
“You'll see products these days that are labeled ‘lavender’ such as cleaning products, but most of these products don't have real lavender in them, it's really just a [synthetic] perfume that they call lavender,” explains Cindy Mullins, president of the Ojai Valley Lavender Festival, which takes place on Saturday, June 24 this year. “So when you can get the real products at a festival like this where they actually use real lavender, it's great.”
For thousands of years, lavender has been cultivated for its therapeutic, culinary and cleansing properties, particularly around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, northern and eastern Africa, southwest Asia and southeast India. It’s a hearty and adaptive herb, able to grow in a diverse array of climates, though lavender particularly thrives in Southern California thanks to our Mediterranean-like climate.
“Phoenicians and Egyptians used lavender for perfume and for the mummification process,” says Mullins, who also points out that mention of lavender, known by its Greek name of spikenard, can be found throughout the Bible, particularly in anointing oils. The name lavender is derived from the Latin verb lavare, which means “to wash” as the herb was used by Ancient Romans for washing, as well as cooking and scenting the air and linens. It was also used for centuries in hopes of fending off everything from the plague to cholera. “I know that Queen Victoria had it used for cleaning because it's a disinfectant too, and instructed servants that it be used in every room and for washing the floors,” adds Mullins. “Queen Elizabeth I drank lavender tea to control her migraine headaches.” In recent years, even Western medicine has begun to come around to the potential therapeutic benefits of lavender for addressing ailments ranging from insomnia and fatigue to anxiety, depression and neurological disorders, though it’s still vastly understudied.
At the Ojai Valley Lavender Fest, now in it’s fourteenth year, visitors will have a chance to explore the diversity of uses for lavender, thanks to vendors selling fresh and dried lavender, lavender products, and food and drinks made with lavender, as well as plenty of purple products like clothing and crafts. Restaurants and shops in the area also feature lavender products during the festival, as well as bars featuring cocktails made with lavender. At the festival, there’s live music throughout the day, as well as speakers that cover a range of agricultural topics, including women farmers from Ventura County known as the Soil Sisters, a beekeeper and a chef preparing dishes with lavender. “It's our mission to educate people on the benefits of lavender, as well as the benefits of agriculture in our Valley,” explains Mullins. “This used to be a big agricultural valley, but like much of California has been paved over in many places. That's why our speakers cover various subjects.”
Additionally, all of the proceeds from the Ojai Valley Lavender Festival go toward scholarships for local residents who are going to pursue careers that involve lavender in some way. While most of the scholarships are awarded to those going to work in agriculture, Mullins says they recently sent one young man to culinary school. “One of our scholarship winners this year wants to be a veterinarian, and as a vet she'd like to incorporate the medicinal benefits of lavender for treating animals,” Mullins says. “We don't just give a party for ourselves, we like for our proceeds to do something good for people. And most of those proceeds come from vendor fees, we don't go out and do a bunch of fundraising. We've given out over twenty scholarships, and we've also contributed to Food For Thought, an elementary school gardening project in the Valley, and to other community projects.”
If you’re heading to the Ojai Valley festival, you’ll also want to stop by the nearby Frog Creek Lavender Farm, owned by Christel Rogero and her husband Larry. The farm is open for visits on weekends during bloom season in June and July. There you can pick your own lavender, purchase bundles and lavender products, have a picnic or photoshoot, or just swing in a hammock while enjoying the sights and smells of their more than 600 plants. The couple fell in love with the property with it’s oak trees and stunning views back in 2003, and after considering a variety of crops, decided lavender was the perfect choice for growing. Rogero recalls, “It would be an easy crop to grow, it requires very little water and is drought-tolerant, and it outcompetes the weeds. And, on top of that, it's absolutely stunning to look at.” They also grow a variety of vegetables, berries and fruit trees as well for themselves.
“There are several microclimates all around Ojai, but what makes Ojai really unique and a gem is that it's a very Mediterranean-like climate,” says Rogero. “So you see a lot of the same plants that you see over in Italy and France that you do here: olives, citrus, lavender, poppies, sunflowers and more. So the climate really lends itself to growing lavender beautifully out here.
Rogero explains that they grow three varieties of lavender, including English Hidcote, a popular culinary variety known for it’s deep velvet purple and sweet scent; Provence with its long-stems and extensive blooms; and Grosso that offers a sweet oil and beautiful bloom. “It's hard to find some varieties,” Rogero says. “We have the traditional stuff. It's hard to find the hidcote and grosso that we have. When you order them today, you get all different variations of that specific species. So we like to propagate our own because we like the old stuff that we have. I think it's more original. A lot of it came from Spain originally and then the English and the French slowly took it over and brought it over to their lands. And here we are in sweet little Ojai, California with that old lavender.”
When the couple first began planting lavender in 2004, Rogero notes that “There were about 17 acres total in all of Ojai, which was pretty unique. I didn't know that at the time of planting, but once we did, we thought what a great thing to have all of this lavender in Ojai. It was mostly incorporated into existing yards, so it wasn't just specifically lavender fields. But today, I only know of two farms in Ojai, myself and Ojai Lavender Farms up the road, and there’s Sandy Messori at Rivendale in the Carpinteria area, but other than that I think it's diminished a bit.” Rogero isn’t quite sure why there’s been a drop off in lavender farming in the area in recent years, but she suspects that the recent drought may have discouraged people from planting new crops and the very short season for lavender might not be appealing to those looking for more productive crops. She also adds, “These plants don't live forever, they live to about 12 to 14 years old and then they've reached their peak performance. So it could be because of that, they could have been farms that reached their peak, but I don't know any specific reasons.” She imagines that following the welcome arrival of rain over the past year might encourage others to start planting lavender again, but it remains to be seen.
The 123 Farm, located at the Highland Springs Ranch and Inn, lays claim to the largest organic lavender farm in Southern California with 20 acres of lavender fields. The farm specializes in three varieties, Provence, Angustifolia and Munstead, and also has a sample garden with over 90 varieties. Each summer, the farm hosts a two-weekend Lavender Festival. At the festival visitors can stroll through the fields, take guided tours on horse-drawn carriages, learn how lavender oil is extracted and check out free gardening workshops, enjoy food and drinks made with lavender, and hear live music throughout the weekend. They also have an organic marketplace featuring lavender products, bouquets, plants and more. And if you’re really enthralled with lavender, they offer special weekend getaway packages at the inn such as the Lavender Lover’s Escape, which includes a lavender aromatherapy massage, dinner for two with lavender-infused cocktails and plenty more lavender goodness.
And in case there are any guys that are reluctant to dive into the world of lavender (as I have), Rogero of Frog’s Creek reminds us, “It is a very unisex scent, it's not just a feminine scent, it's also a masculine scent. And both men and women can equally enjoy the fragrance, the flavor and the tranquility that it offers. I love that about lavender.”
“It's really amazing what this one little plant can do,” Rogero adds. “It's very relaxing, and that's also why I love having the farm because you can come out here in hammocks and on picnic benches and just sitting out here smells amazing. And I think it really just slows time.”
Top image: Courtesy of Keys Creek Lavender Farm