When Iris Underwood decided to start her own lavender farm more than a decade ago in Michigan's Addison Township, about an hour north of Detroit, she knew it needed to be a hands-on experience -- not just for her, but for her farm's future visitors.
That's because lavender's soothing benefits don't just come from looking at it. They come from touching it and getting the oils on your skin.
"It works its way into your nervous system, into your blood, and it calms you down," said Underwood, who ran Yule Love It Lavender Farm for 10 years before getting out of the lavender farm business in 2014. "It’s a reality."
Lavender -- and its super plant powers -- is so much more than a pretty flower. It can be incorporated in recipes and in homeopathic creams and sprays. And since it blooms in July, now is it's time to shine (see sidebar for details on this weekend's Michigan Lavender Fest).
"Lavender is really popular right now," said Tricia Dennis, the owner of Indigo Lavender Farms, which opened in 2015 in Imlay City with 4,000 lavender plants and now has 14,000 on 20 acres. "It goes along with the all natural and organic phase. A lot of people are turning to more local more natural products. And lavender just appeals to a lot of people – the smell, the look, the color."
If you want to grow your own lavender, full sun is a must. And it also likes well-drained soil. It doesn't like to be wet.
Underwood, who still has about 200 lavender plants on her farm with her husband, Mel, said Michigan winters are hard on lavender and she lost a lot of plants. Still, at one point she had over 2,000 plants over one rolling acre. She ran workshops, had U-pick and had special events on the farm and "it was marvelous," she said.
"It was quite rewarding," said Underwood, who recently published a book, "The Mantle," in which the farm figures prominently. "...I knew from the start it was going to be an educational venue. I just wanted to pass on what little I knew."
While most people are aware of lavender's calming effect, Underwood said some don't realize that it can also be eaten and it's good for your skin.
"Lavender is one of the few herbs that covers all the four quadrants -- dye, culinary, medicinal and fragrance," she said.
Indigo Lavender Farms is one of the closest lavender farms to Detroit that offers U-pick lavender through early August. Tricia Dennis was a corporate attorney before said she decided to make the segue into lavender farming to be closer to home and her kids. The farm grows several varieties, including including "Rosea", "Royal Velvet," "Hidcote," "Provence," "Alba," "Grosso," "Phenomenal," "Munstead," "Melissa," and "Big Time Blue."
If lavender is cared for properly, it never spoils, said Tricia, who owns the farm with husband Greg. And the hydrosols are used for facial tonics, other beauty products, you name it.
"Not only does it not spoil, what can’t you do with lavender?" said Tricia. "There’s just so many applications. We sell it in lavender tea, bake it."
Barbara Bull, a fourth-generation fruit farmer who owns Cherry Point Farm & Market in Shelby, Michigan, 3 1/2 hours west of Detroit, had no experience growing lavender until she decided to create a lavender labyrinth at the farm 16 years ago. At the center is a stone circle and 12-point vesica pattern. After a photo of the labyrinth went viral last year, it now draws people from all over the country.
"I wanted a place for people to come and connect – a place to connect to the land," said Bull.
She calls lavender the “perfect plant.” She says it has very few, if any, pests and there are dozens of varieties. But it’s important to pick the right variety for your hardiness zone, she said.
“If somebody from Indiana or Illinois is taking plants home, I always ask, ‘Are you in heavy prairie sod?’ If you are, get some rocks and take home a bucket of sand with you, do something so you can get some drainage,” suggests Bull. "They're not going to be happy with wet roots."
Still, growing lavender isn't for the fickle.
Blake's Orchard in Armada used to offer regular U-pick lavender (and it will be available for this weekend's Lavender Fest) but last winter wasn't kind to it and plants were lost.
"Lavender is hardy but it’s finicky in the beginning," said Jennifer Vasich, director and organizer of the Lavender Festival. "Given the right elements, it thrives."
The plants have been re-planted, said Vasich, and in the meantime, lavender will have a much more permanent presence at Blake's with its new Lovey's Lavender Farm & Artisan Market. Located in the Blake family's home at the orchard, it's named after the Blake family matriarch, whose nickname was Lovey. Open on weekends through Dec. 23, it's filled with lavender products, candles, beauty products and home decor.
"It’s filled to the brim with lavender goodness," said Vasich.
So as lavender comes into full bloom this summer, don't forget to stop to soak up all its purple goodness.
"We live in such a fast paced world," said Vasich. "Everyone's on their phone or on their computer. So people are looking for an escape. Lavender is so incredibly relaxing. It’s so soothing."
Michigan Lavender Fest
Now in its 16th year, this year's Michigan Lavender Fest, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday at Blake's Orchard & Cider Mill,17985 Armada Center Road in Armada, will continue to offer a wide range of lavender products along with an artisan market with 150 vendors and a big do-it-yourself component. Director Jennifer Vasich said they'll have cooking workshops, yoga sessions, free massages, even a local artisan making brooms. "The lavender fest was born out of a love for lavender and a love for handmade," said Vasich. More than 25,000 people are expected. It runs from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. all three days. Admission is $7 and kids 12 and under are free. For information, go to http://michiganlavenderfestival.net.