The erratic spring weather has played games with our lavender harvest this year and we’re running a bit late. We’re already getting calls from our restaurant customers and questions from our market shoppers asking when the lavender will be ready.
Hang on. We’re almost there.
We’re not one of those giant lavender factories like you find in France or out further on the Olympic Peninsula in Sequim, but we’ve got a couple of hundred bushes planted in our lavender patch, including the English varieties, Hidcote and Munstead, (which aren’t really English at all, having started in the French Alps,) some hybrids like Grosso and Abrialii, which bloom a little later, and Provence, which is actually a cross between English and Spike lavender.
No matter. Everyone seems to love the stuff. When we sell lavender at the farmers market kids come by to sniff the bouquets and pinch the sachets. Their moms tell us that the scent reminds them of their grandmother’s house. Our friends Jeff and Heidi, owners of Blackbird Bakery on Bainbridge Island, celebrate summer’s arrival with a delicious and very popular lavender lemonade from our English lavender.
We used to like the hybrids best for their drama–the bushes and blossoms sit 3-4 feet tall and give off a scent so overpowering you have to be careful when you are picking it on a hot day or you’ll get lightheaded. The hybrids are too strong for kitchen use but they make great bouquets and sachets. Sometimes, when we go to pick some Grosso or Provence early in the morning we’ll find bees curled up and snoozing in the plants, like drunks sleeping off a bender.
But we’ve also come to appreciate the more modest English varieties for their subtlety. They’re smaller and less dramatic, but rub a stalk of Munstead or Hidcote (the names just sound veddy British, don’t they?) between your fingers and the aroma has a soft wafting air to it. These are the lavenders that you sprinkle on the salmon on the grill or bake into shortbread. Rub the Grosso and it is like the difference between a smooth waltz and a sharp tango. When we get kids coming through the garden in summer we always have them try the rub test. Everyone can tell the differnce.
Lavender season usually runs from mid-June into September, but if you want to dry it for potpourri or dried bouquets you have to move quickly. The calyxes–the tiny, bright blue flowers that give the blossom its brightest color–last only a week or two and that window can shrink to a day if you get a late June rainstorm when the flowers are open.
We’ve been checking the patch regularly for the last two weeks to see how things are progressing. We picked a few bunches of Munstead this week for Jeff and Heidi’s lemonade but we’re still waiting for the flowers to show.
When the day comes, we’ll swoop down, pick as much as we can, then hang it up to dry in the barn. Makes for an interesting olefactory experience with the garlic harvest drying in the barn loft and the lavender drying down below.
Harvesting English lavender can be a tricky. Sometimes, when we are getting impatient, we’ll snip a bunch early in June that looks done only to find out the stems haven’t quite firmed up. An hour later, the whole bunch is drooping and we have to toss it. But wait too long and the flowers fall off. You can still dry it and the buds will hold some color. But mostly they go grey and you are left with a drab bouquet.
How do we know when it is ready? We pay attention to the flowers, of course, but we also listen to the bees. One day the patch will be silent and you can hear the breeze rustling the stalks. The next day, when the first lavender flowers open, it sounds like someone left a small Toyota revving up in there.
We don’t keep honeybee hives because they draw the occasional wandering black bear like a dinner invite. In the decade we’ve been farming in Indianola we’ve never had a bear thrash our crops, but our neighbors sure have. And with 100 fruit trees ripening in the late spring and beehives bursting with honey any bear would regard the farm as his own personal smorgasbord.
Just how the bees know when the flowers are ready is something of a mystery to us–one of many that surround bees. What’s clear is that once the lavender patch begins to bloom those bees could care less about anything else. And they never sting. We’ve wrestled lavender blossoms away from bees while we’re harvesting and still parted friends.
It’s pretty clear we could go on endlessly about our lavender, but you really ought to see and sniff for yourself. Just be careful you don’t OD on the stuff.