Lavender is Catching On

H A R W I C H, Mass., July 26, 2000 -- A decade ago, when Cynthia Sutphin plantedher first 400 lavender plants in a small garden outside her Harwichhome, she wasn’t certain why she was doing it.

Somehow, she says, she just knew the plant would catch onsomeday, and she wanted to be ready when it did.

Demand for Lavender

Today, the owner of the Cape Cod Lavender Farm annually harvestsmore than 15,000 lavender plants and can barely keep up with thedemand for oils, soaps, potpourri and plants fueled by a surge inconsumers exploring natural remedies, homeopathy and aromatherapy.

“I knew that eventually lavender would hit it big,” saidSutphin, 48. “And I knew that I would be in the right place at theright time when it happened.”

Some say the ancient plant had its big break just last year whenit was named Herb of the Year by the International HerbOrganization in Virginia.

But others say its popularity has been steadily building foryears with the increase in more health-conscious consumers.

More Than Perfume

“It’s only recently that people started to notice it can beused for so much more than just perfume,” said Peggy McElgunn,director of the herb association. “People are finally waking up toit and becoming smarter.”

To the untrained eye — or nose — lavender is just anotherflowering plant with deep purple buds and a scent reminiscent of agrandmother’s perfume.

But to Sutphin and other herb enthusiasts, it is a near mysticalherb that can be used to cure headaches, induce sleep, season pastaor even sweeten lemonade.

When pressed, the flower buds release an oil that is used formassage oil, soaps, perfume and air freshener. And when driedcorrectly, the flowers can retain their scent and most of theircolor for years, Sutphin said.

“It’s something our grandparents knew about,” she said. “Ourparents didn’t, but now we’re rediscovering lavender. It skipped ageneration.”

And now that people have begun to notice it again, just aboutanything having to do with lavender is not only popular, but bigbusiness.

Sutphin’s farm is beginning to see more competition from smallerfarms around the region, including the Franklin County LavenderGrowers in western Massachusetts, a cooperative of about 40 farmerswith about 3,5000 plants among them.

Farms are flourishing across the country as well, including theOlympic Peninsula, where the North American Lavender Conference isheld each year. More than 60 farms and herb nurseries in statesfrom coast to coast are registered members of the InternationalHerb Association.

200 Books on Lavender And where there was once just a handful of books about herbs andtheir healing qualities, today there are more than 200 books inprint on lavender alone.

“I think people have a growing need to get back to nature,”said David Schiller, a spokesman for the International Aromatherapyand Herb Association, based in Phoenix. “Especially in cities withno trees or grass. This lets them get [a taste of] nature again.”

Growers agree.

“I could sit here and make soap all day and I would still runout,” said Denise Schwartz, who is a member of the westernMassachusetts cooperative. Demand has doubled since last year, shesaid.

Sutphin opened her farm to the public just four years ago.Visitors have risen from 2,000 in the first year to 4,000 in thesecond to 8,000 in the third. This year, business already hasquadrupled, she said.

She plans to expand her tiny shop, which is now housed in a shedat the end of the winding driveway that leads to her farm. And nextyear she says she and her husband, Matthew, may have to hire somefull-time help.

“We’re getting too big to run this whole thing ourselves,”Sutphin said. “It’s just no longer possible.”

On her 11 acres of lush fields, she grows eight varieties oflavender. For a few weeks each year, most of the eight varietiesare in bloom, painting her landscape with a delicate purple brush.

And when all the flowers are out and the breeze blows justright, there is no sweeter sight or scent in the world, she said.

Aromatic and Beautiful

“It’s beautiful to look at, and pleasing to the eyes and thenose,” she said. “Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.”

Today, Sutphin and her husband sell their lavender in bulk tohome decor doyen Martha Stewart and to individual customers whofind the farm.

And even in the dead of winter, when the Cape Cod roads areunplowed and her dirt driveway is nearly impossible to find, thereis always someone out there looking for lavender, she said.

“What can I say?” she said. “People love it.