Martha Wilczynski dreamed of having a field of lavender.
Her husband, Bill, wanted to know how they’d pay for that.
“So we built a business around it,” she told me on a recent visit to Lavender Hill Farm, where the 4,100 plants on 1.25 acres are blooming and it’s high season.
The Wilczynskis operated the area’s only u-pick lavender farm at 1219 Morris Drive, Niles, Mich. For some, it’s become like the baseball field in the movie “Field of Dreams,” where people started coming after Kevin Costner’s character built the improbable baseball field, even if they didn’t understand completely why.
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Lavender isn’t like other u-pick crops. You don’t gather pounds of it like you do strawberries and make jam, or buckets of it to freeze like blueberries.
It’s not like other herbs. It doesn’t have a culinary use that’s nearly automatic like basil (pesto) or cilantro (salsa).
So what do you do with it? Wilczynski has been answering that question for more than a decade.
She was a landscape architect introduced to the herb as an intern in the early 1990s at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory in Fort Wayne. She started growing it in her backyard in Syracuse. After she and Bill bought her family’s farm in Niles in 1998, she planted some in the poor, sandy soil and explored how to build a business around this plant, she said. She started taking the fragrant cuttings to farmers markets and creating products harnessing the calming scent. In 2008 they opened a shop in a small house on the property and opened u-pick in 2009.
Bees — both honey and bumble — flit among the flowers. All eight varieties the farm grows are in bloom right now. If you don’t bother the bees, they won’t bother you, she said. The honey produced on the edge of the plot doesn’t taste like lavender, but has a bright, light flavor. The shop sells the honey, as well as the dried flower buds, lip balm and essential oils. The Wilczynskis gather wheelbarrow loads of lavender and put them into stills that glean the oil with steam.
The oil can be used in cooking (Wilczynski said she uses it to flavor lemonade rather than making a simple syrup). The dried flowers have a more common culinary use. It’s an ingredient in the French Herbes de Provence mix and can be used in desserts. The list of pairings with other foods in the excellent 1996 book “Culinary Artistry” is short: “fruit, ice cream, lamb, rabbit, stew.” It’s missing lemon, and those two together may be the most natural pairing. The best way to ingest it and appreciate the difference it can make is to drink it in lemonade. Renee Troyer Campbell, former owner of Prairie Trail Farm south of Goshen, was a master at blending the two in a drink when she had events there.
Lavender can elevate a shortbread or add sparkle to a sugar used with fruit. One of Journeyman Distillery’s most popular drinks is the lavender gimlet made with lavender-infused gin, lime and grapefruit juices and simple syrup, said Garrett Ragland, Journeyman marketing manager.
Though it may be overblown to say lavender is having its moment, people are more aware and business is good. “Since 2001, the interest and awareness of people in lavender has grown 100-fold,” Wilczynski said.
Perhaps thanks to its Facebook page, 600 cars arrived on the first day of picking in late June. “That was, I’m sure, the biggest day we’ve ever had,” she said, adding that so many new people find them every year.
Some arrive not quite sure what they’ll find, but are handed a scissors and a twist-tie. It’s $5 for as many stalks as you can tie together in a bunch.
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It’s calming to crouch in the field among the English varieties (better for cooking and crafting) and hybrids (often used more for oil or potpourri). The fragrance is unmistakably this one thing that isn’t cloying or overwhelming. A bunch put in a vase without water will last and keep that fragrance. “It’s a great air freshener,” she said. Months from now, the buds can be stripped off the stalk and used or put in sachets. When Wilczynski had a desk job, she kept one of those close to calm her with “that beautiful scent,” she said.
In that field, people breathe more than work. “You can cut a bunch in less than five minutes. Some people take an hour,” she said.
However long it takes, people enjoy the experience.
“We seem to have the ability to gather up 50 bucks worth of lavender in under 30 minutes,” said Steve Sult of Niles. He and his wife, Terry, started coming several years ago, she said. It’s an outing and a way to harvest an aroma that lasts. “I just love it. It just smells so wonderful,” she said.
The farm has been a hidden gem, he said. Word is getting out. Word that it’s a place to gather something yourself and slow down a bit. Whether you eat the buds or not, lavender is an herb of a different ilk and the Wilczynskis have figured out how to capitalize on that.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat. And it’s time for some lavender lemonade.
Lavender Hill Farm of Niles
1219 Morris Drive, Niles
U-pick will be available 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday until early August After that, shop hours will be 10 to 4 Thursday to Saturday until late December
EASY LAVENDER LEMONADE
- Country Time Lemonade
- Lavender essential oil
- Prepare 2 quarts of Country Time Lemonade.
- Add five or so drops of the oil (to taste), from a known good quality source, and stir vigorously.
- Pour over ice or add ice to the pitcher.
Note: Stirring before pouring each glass is a good idea.
(Recipe from Lavender Hill Farm)
LAVENDER SIMPLE SYRUP
- 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoons fresh or dried lavender flowers
- 2 cups of sugar
- In a pot on the stove, bring the water and flowers to boil.
- Stir in sugar until fully dissolved.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Keep in the refrigerator for three days, then fine strain the lavender.
Note: Can be used to flavor drinks such as lemonade or tea, added to fruit, or used in other ways.
(Recipe from Lavender Hill Farm)