Last summer, on the island of Hvar Croatia, I swooned for lavender. As the sun lowered in the late afternoon sky, rich orange hues danced on field upon field of profuse purple stems. As far as the eye could gaze, we were entranced by the island’s signature crop in bloom – the view, the scent, was simply intoxicating, a moment etched on my traveller’s heart.
On a fine summer day this past week, once again I wonderfully found myself surrounded by heavenly lavandula, but this time it would be a hands-on experience. We had been invited to help harvest, so ‘the girls’ and I drove west from Kimberley, through the old mining town of Moyie, past the quaint stop at Yakh where you might just glimpse those roof-top goats grazing improbably above the Yakh Soap and Candle Co. Then onwards toward the Creston Valley, a veritable cornucopia of farmland, orchards and vineyards.
We started with an ‘obligatory’ wine tasting at the Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery, named for the Anglo-Austrian aristocrat who made his way to the valley in 1882. While on a hunting expedition with the future United States president, Teddy Roosevelt, the explorer saw the possibilities of the region. Granted a ten-year lease of almost 50,000 acres from the government, William Adolf Baillie-Grohman settled in the valley, creating a dyke system to reclaim fertile land from the Kootenay River, operating a steamboat to facilitate the passage of goods and settlers to the area, and he also found time to serve as Justice of the Peace for the Kootenay district.
More European settlers arrived to the area from the mid 1880’s and a general store, sawmill, clearing and planting of orchards soon followed. Today, the hillsides around the picturesque town of Creston are credited as the first to capitalise on the area’s potential for fruit bearing trees and, as we sample wine at the Baillie-Grohman Vineyard, there’s no doubt it’s the ideal first stop in the valley. Capturing the essence of the Creston valley, the row on row of grape vines cradled on the slopes of gentle mountains evoke serenity amidst the quiet productivity of the valley.
But we’re here for another delightful crop, lavender, and so we wend our way a little further north of Creston to Wynndel. Once dubbed the ‘strawberry capital of the world’, Wynndel now flourishes with livestock, dairy and hay farming. When we reach our destination for the afternoon, Sanctuary Lavender Farm, immediately we see that we are in a place of sanctuary, a haven of serenity, as if drawn into a canvas by Monet. I’m instantly transported back to Croatia, even to France, then at once I’m full of gratitude that this is in our own ‘backyard.’
We’re welcomed by Jade, the resident long-haired Siberian Forest cat, and her owners Kevin and Alanna. I had already read an article about the two lavender farmers. I was curious to learn why they had sold a successful business in a popular mountain town near Vancouver to take over a lavender farm. I was interested in the harvesting process and the products that they create. And, naturally, we were eager to start harvesting, and strangely excited to wield a scythe.
Alanna had sent a message after we had settled on the day and warned us that there might be mosquitos as we worked in the fields. And she added, “So before you say yes, I want you to know about that… but this is offset of course by the aroma and the peace, and the buzzing of our friendly bees.”
Her description of the lavender farm she and Kevin bought almost three years ago summed it up succinctly. Yet until you’re standing amongst the rows and rows of lavender in bloom, the peace and serenity is difficult to convey. The plump bumble bees only compliment the living palette as they continuously buzz and busy on the lavender – part of nature’s cycle that we soon feel in tune with. With scythes handed to each of us, Kevin demonstrates how to take a small handful of lavender stems, cut carefully, repeat until a bunch is formed, secure with a band. As the bunches slowly grow and rest on the harvested lavender beds, bees buzz languorously, Jade slinks and suns herself, billowy clouds drift above, we savour deep breaths of lavender-lush air.
There are close to seven hundred lavender plants on the Sanctuary Farm; today we’re harvesting French lavender. An ancient flowering plant of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, the name lavender comes from the Latin word lavare meaning to wash given that it was commonly used by the Romans and in medieval Europe to scent water for washing clothes and for bathing. In Tuscany, it was used to ward of the evil eye. In ancient Egypt, lavender essential oil was one of many herbal oils used to preserve bodies for mummification; inexpensive, readily available, valued for its antibacterial properties.
Many of us well know the stress-relieving, calming properties of lavender, something I imagine Kevin and Alanna benefit from daily as they breathe in the atmosphere and soak in their tranquil setting.
“I still can’t believe I live here,” Alanna muses as we take a moment to gaze over the rows of lavender, and beyond. Rays of sunshine are dappling the late afternoon vista – tidy, diminutive knolls of purple against imposing emerald peaks.
As we’ve chatted, alongside one another, or scythed in silent harmony, an entire row has been harvested. It’s been over an hour and feels like a quarter of that. Countless bunches now await their placement into Kevin’s wagon where they’ll be trundled to the small drying shed. The French lavender will remain hanging, ‘bloom-side down’, for two weeks of drying. They’ll then be lovingly fashioned into Sanctuary’s retail products; candles and soaps, lavender wands and neck pillows, wreaths and sachets, or in their delightful elemental bunches. The products now grace local markets and stores in the Kootenay region and have become a go-to choice for gifts for many of us.
Laying down our tools, we gather on the shady terrace for a coffee and some lavender infused biscotti. The conversation meanders to Kevin and Alanna’s journey, of their transition to a slower-paced family life – their son Shem is with extended family this weekend.
“If you want to fly, you have to give up the ground you’re standing on,” Kevin says with the wisdom of a sage.
Even as their flower/event business in Squamish flourished, the couple reflect on their desire for more privacy and family time; they dreamt of making a change.
“We put our intention out to the universe, we wanted to be grounded with the senses,” the two explain.
“I had been perusing the real estate listings one evening.” Alanna continues, “we might have had Nelson in mind. Just as I was about to close my laptop, an ad for this property popped up. My heart started racing. I got tingles. The house and position on the slope of a hill was what we had aspired to. Oh, and then there was the lavender…”
There was still a business and a house to sell, their family split between two locations for a time as they transitioned. In time, it transpired into a home, a community and a lavender business they adore, Sanctuary Lavender Farm.
Kevin, originally from Sydney, Australia, chuckles that he’s gone from a flower shop to a lavender farm. As I take a photo of the two of them, Alanna wonders if her hair is alright. “You’re beautiful, just beautiful,” he says to his partner in life and business.
When Alana talks about their journey, she mentions that they both grew up with single moms.
“We drove a battered car and worked three jobs to open our flower shop.”
The couple radiate an intrinsic joy and calm spirt that seems to invite those around them to celebrate life. I hear one of them mention that the farm is like a botanical garden and can easily imagine the panoply of colours that play out as the seasons change.
As we finish our second session amongst the lavender, it’s difficult to pull ourselves away. Alanna shows me the lower beds. Ayla, Trixie and Jade pose for photos. Kevin has taken our precious bundles to be hung.
Alanna I discuss a future collaboration, maybe a writing workshop amongst the blooms? She motions to the girls who are engaging Jade to pose for a photograph.
“How lucky are you to have those two lovely young ladies in your life… and they you,” she says. Of course I agree wholeheartedly.
It’s been a fabulous day spent together. How did Kevin put it earlier?
“The journey is the treasure.”
Many photos contributed by Trixie Pacis at http://www.trixiepacis.com