Opened in July 2018, Pelindaba Lavender Ashland is located across from the Plaza on Hwy 99/N Main Street in the heart of historic downtown Ashland amidst other locally-owned boutiques, galleries, restaurants and cafes. In today´s interview I speak with local owner Julie E. Harden about everything lavender. Julie´s rich and in-depth knowlege of lavender will spark and excite you with a new and deep apprecitation for this magical herb.
What activities are happening at the Pelindaba Lavender farm this time of year?
As our farm is further north on San Juan Island, WA, the “peak of purpleness” at the Pelindaba Lavender farm is mid-July – mid-August. That is the time to see more than 25 acres of lavender fields in full, glorious bloom. They are a sea of vibrant purple! Around September when the purple flowers have all bloomed themselves out and the fields have faded to a blueish-gray we reach the “peak of fragrance.” This is the time when lavender, heavy with fragrant essential oil, is ready for distillation. For weeks during early fall our farm crew spends the days harvesting and distilling and repeating.
I understand there’s multiple varieties of lavender. Do they all bloom at the same time?
There are more than 40 species and over 400 varieties of lavender! But no, not all lavenders bloom at the same time. Some are early bloomers, with their magnificent blooms appearing in early spring. A few bloom continuously, producing flowers all spring and summer, while others are late bloomers with blooms opening in late summer.
What does the harvest process look like on such a large farm?
Each and every one of our current 30,000+ plants is harvested by hand! We harvest on sunny mornings once the dew has dried to prevent the lavender from mildewing once cut. Our crew uses 7-inch scythes to cut large handfuls of flowers at a time. We’ve found this method to be the best at our farm due to the hemispherical shape of the mature plants. At this point, rubber bands and paper clips become key to the process.
What do rubber bands and paperclips have to do with harvesting lavender?
Well after the stems are harvested, we create uniform bundles and secure each with a rubber band. As lavender stalks dry they shrink a bit, so a simple rubber band keeps everything secure! And paperclips? We have found that unfolded paperclips are the most efficient way to hang our lavender bundles. The bundles are hung upside down on wires using paper clips, making sure to allow enough spacing for good air circulation.
Tell me more about the drying process. For how long do you need to dry lavender?
Lavender needs 3-8 weeks to dry completely, depending on the temperature and humidity. Cool, wet weather can delay drying, while hot, windy weather will speed up the process.
The drying barn is tucked back in the forest behind the expansive fields at Pelindaba Lavender. The barn windows are kept open and we run large fans during the drying process to help provide adequate air circulation and prevent mold and mildew formation.
Why is drying lavender not done outside in the sun?
Darkness and good air circulation are the keys to successfully drying lavender. We keep racks of drying bundles out of sunlight to help preserve their color and regularly rotate enormous fans around the lavender to ensure consistent drying. The Pelindaba drying barn houses thousands of bundles of fresh organic lavender over the course of the harvesting season, i.e. now!, to be dried for various purposes – whether for bouquets, sachets, or mixed into our neck or eye pillows, or culinary products. Once fully dried, the buds are stripped from their stalks and cleaned to remove leaf and stalk fragments in preparation for the production of our lavender product line and at-home use.
And you say the buds are stripped from their stalks. Is that all done by hand as well?
No, not any more. Early in the farm’s history, when we were processing 2,500 plants, we removed the buds by hand using a series of screens and sieves – a very labor-intensive process. After we grew to over 6,000 plants we acquired a rotating brush tool that allows us to feed the dried bundles into the spinning brushes and the buds are automatically stripped and collected below.
Last time we talked I learned about culinary lavender. Is the harvesting process the same for that line of products? Are there any notable variances during harvest?
Yes, for culinary use, the main harvesting difference is timing. Our culinary line utilizes the Lavandula x intermedia “Provence” varietal which is harvested early in the season so that the essential oils inside the flower buds don’t have as much time to mature. When harvested at the very beginning of the season when just a couple of buds have opened, it has a wonderful, slightly sweet flavor perfect for culinary uses. Sifting to remove any other bits of organic matter is the final step before these tasty little buds are ready to grace a recipe or two.
You also create lavender essential oil on the farm. Talk me through what that process entails.
Absolutely! We use the ancient process of steam distillation to extract the pure essential oil from the flowers. To ensure optimum quality, all our essential oil is distilled right on the farm exclusively from the lavender flowers we grow ourselves and is Certified Organic by Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Lavender intended for essential oil distillation is taken by a 3-minute wagon ride directly from the field to the distillery. Its route skips the drying barn, as we found it is unnecessary to dry lavender prior to distillation. Upon arrival at the distillery, the freshly harvested lavender is placed in our custom 500 gallon steam chamber. Once the steam chamber is filled up and the red seal clamps closed, the boiler is turned on to heat up the water to vaporous state to be piped into the bottom of the steam chamber. As the water vapor rises through the plant material, it vaporizes the essential oil. The mixed oil and water vapor travels through a large pipe into a cooling chamber where it condenses back into liquid.
This liquid descends from the cooling chamber into the separator where basic physics takes over; oil being lighter than water, it rises to the surface. Once extracted, Lavender Essential Oil is stored in UV-protected, medical grade glass jugs to prevent the oil from breaking down into its various constituents – a common practice in bottling red wines for similar reasons. Interestingly enough, some change does occur in the bottled essential oil, resulting in its “mellowing out” over time, again rather like a red-wine. These jugs will be stored for at least a year, usually 2-3, before use. We make it a standard practice to age all our Lavender Essential Oil to reap the benefit of this natural phenomenon.
Just as the essential oil is decanted, so too is the condensed water decanted into large 5 gallon bottles. It is, however, no longer straight water. It is now hydrosol.
What is hydrosol?
During the steam distillation process a small amount of lavender essential oil is permanently bound to the water molecules – this permanent mixture of oil and water is hydrosol. It can only be produced by the distillation process and is, effectively, a diluted version of the essential oil making it particularly useful for a wide range of personal care, therapeutic and household care and other uses.
I think lavender hydrosol is the unsung superstar of the lavender distillation season. In fact, I use lavender hydrosol daily as a completely non-toxic, multi-purpose disinfectant and natural solvent. In my home I reach for lavender hydrosol to clean my kitchen countertops, hardwood floors, bathrooms and windows, clean my fruits and vegetables and much more. The top two ways I use the Pelindaba Lavender Hydrosol every single day is one, spray it directly on my cell phone for a streak-free clean, and two, spray my keys for cleaning and disinfecting as soon as I walk in the house.
Now that the lavender essential oil and hydrosol have been fully decanted, what comes next?
It’s time to open and empty the steam chamber, only the most dramatic part of the entire process! The big, red clamps are loosened and the heavy door swings back… out billows thick, fragrant steam and left-over moisture drips to the floor. The entire distillery is engulfed! Using pitch forks the soft and damp lavender is emptied and then added to our epic compost pile. Can you imagine the facials our farm crew gets every day during the distillation season!
How long does this process take? Do you know the yield after all that work?
The whole process – from filling the steam chamber to emptying it – takes about an hour and a half and yields approximately 1.5 gallons of essential oil. That’s approximately 270-300 plants producing 1.5 gallons of essential oil!
It’s a labor-intensive process requiring a great deal of plant material to produce a relatively small amount of pure essential oil. This is one reason why pure essential oils are more expensive than their oft-diluted counterparts. Conversely, pure essential oils, being so potent, are used in very small quantities. Usually only a couple drops are used for any particular application. This means a little bit goes a long way and, as the fragrance of lavender essential oil continues to improve with age, there is no concern about spoiling.
Each year the fields produce over 100 gallons of lavender essential oil and more than 3,500 gallons of hydrosol. All this labor is well worth it. It’s a labor of love we are privileged to partake in so that you can experience the benefit of pure, organic lavender essential oil and hydrosol straight from the source.
There’s a lot of lavender seen around Ashland. What are some tips for how to harvest the lavender in one’s garden?
In the at-home garden, you will need garden shears or scissors, rubber bands, paperclips, and a well-ventilated space out of direct sunlight to harvest your own lavender. Grasp a handful of stalks and cut them with your garden shears or scissors; be sure to leave at least 2-3 inches of green on the plant. Bundle the stalks with rubber bands, bundles should be no more than 1.5 inches in diameter to keep the stalks from mildewing, that’s about the size made from your thumb to forefinger.
Using rubber bands is important because the lavender stalks will shrink during drying. If one uses twine or something similar the bundles will start to fall apart during drying. A rubber band, however, tightens as the stalks shrink, keeping the bundles intact and easier to handle.
Unfold a paper clip hooking one end through the rubber band. Hang the opposite end of the paperclip from a wire, rod or hook in an area of your garage or house that is well-ventilated and out of direct sunlight. Once dried let your imagination loose throughout the fall and winter crafting and decorating with your dried lavender.
What ideas can you share for the local gardener after harvesting their lavender?
One easy, at-home and kid-friendly project is creating lavender sachets. Sachets are small fabric bags filled with lavender buds are a centuries-old method of bringing, not only the fragrance, but also the natural sedative and insect repellent properties of lavender into everyday use.
Once you dry lavender from your garden, simply strip the buds from the stalks. As for the fabric, any size, any material and any color that suits your preference may be used; they can be homemade bags or purchased at most craft stores. Fill the bag 3/4 full with lavender buds so that there is room to squeeze the bag periodically to release more fragrant essential oil. By squeezing the bag whenever the scent begins to dissipate you can keep your lavender sachet going for a year or more.
Use the remaining dried lavender bouquets and create a beautiful display by adding some fresh eucalyptus, fresh baby’s breath, or other floral stems of preference. To ensure it lasts a long time do not put it in water. These florals will dry naturally without water in whatever vase or container they are put in.
Additionally, keep it out of direct sunlight to preserve the color. If you have an abundance of dried bouquets, try recreating the look we have in the Ashland product gallery of many bouquets strung on a wire above an entryway or on a beam in your house. But save some for holiday decorations and handmade gifts like a Lavender Tub Tea! Check the Pelindaba Lavender blog “Uses for Lavender” category for detailed posts on these ideas.
I’ve seen beautiful wreaths made with lavender. How can that be accomplished at home?
Sure, I would recommend using fresh lavender’s long, flexible stems as those are best for floral weaving projects like making lavender wreaths and wands. For how to use the flowers from your garden in this charming way, we have step-by-step instructions and pictures on the Pelindaba Lavender blog. If you plan on using fresh lavender, it’s a good idea to check that the fresh lavender you are using is a variety that dries well. We cultivate two varieties of lavender in our organically-certified fields that are especially suited for drying — Lavandula x intermedia “Grosso” and Lavandula angustifolia “Royal Purple.” These are selected for their rich color and for their tendency to remain on the stalk much longer than most other varieties. This facilitates not only longer lasting flower arrangements but also greatly assists the crafting of wreaths and other dried flower creations. Other varieties crumble and lose their color when dried and do not work well for dried arrangements. If you are unsure, send us a picture or the variety name and we’ll gladly provide guidance.
Julie, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Do you have any last thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?
Thank you Shields. I hope this inspires readers to get out and harvest their lavender! Fruits of the annual harvest at Pelindaba Lavender come to the Ashland product gallery late August to early September when we decorate with freshly dried lavender and newly made Lavender Wands start to arrive. It’s a wonderful time to visit and we look forward to inspiring guests with more ideas on how to use lavender.
Pelindaba Lavender Ashland
30 N. Main Street