Not long ago, Erin Wexstten, the 35-year-old founder of Oxalis Apothecary, a plant-based skin care brand, ticked off all the ways she uses lavender in her life.
“I personally have lavender everywhere,” she said. “Hand soap, dish soap. I have sachets you stick in the drawer. It makes the underwear smell nice. Dried bunches. They make for a beautiful piece in a vase.”
Wexstten has spread the lavender love through her products, including Feel Good Potion, Reverie body oil, deodorant and a wildflower clay mask, which contains lavender in powder form as a gentle exfoliant.
“I call lavender the quiet queen — she’s purple majesty,” Wexstten said. “It’s an abundant plant. It isn’t a precious, exotic plant. It’s used everywhere.”
Indeed, these days there’s hardly a household, grooming or wellness product that hasn’t been infused with lavender’s sweet, antiseptic-clean aroma: candles, diffusers, shower gels, liquid hand sanitizer, face mists, eye masks. It’s even in food and cocktails.
To feed the demand, hundreds of lavender farms have sprouted up in recent years far from their well-known location of Provence, France: in places like Maine, Kansas and West Virginia, where growing lavender on coal-stripped mountains is being explored as a land reclamation project.
The lavender selfie, typically a young woman wearing a prairie dress and a straw hat posing amid rows of purple blooms arcing to the horizon, has become an image ubiquitous on Instagram every June and July during harvest season.
The lavender field has become such a visual cliché on social media that Simon Porte Jacquemus, the French fashion designer, decided to subvert it by holding his spring 2020 fashion show in an actual field in Provence. “I wanted a place that looked like a postcard — almost too much like a postcard, even,” he told WWD.
Even when you’re not seeking it out, lavender has become hard to escape. A look around my own apartment revealed three bars of lavender bath soap; a lavender “relax” aromatherapy bar by Treestar; a vial of Wexstten’s Feel Good Potion; Sleep Well Therapy Balm by Scentered; Dr. Kerklaan Natural Sleep Cream with CBD extract and calming sensation citrus and lavender; a lavender-scented candle; a bouquet of dried lavender in a vase in the bathroom; and a small pillow stuffed with lavender to be placed under one’s nose at bedtime.
Many of these items are my wife’s. But lavender has entered the men’s grooming world too, in products like Jack Black post-shave cooling gel and overnight balm from the Art of Shaving. (And the bath soap was mine.)
Nature’s Chill Pill
If not a precious plant in modern times, lavender once carried the whiff of semi-luxury. If you stayed in a nice European hotel, your room had crisp linens scented with lavender. That bath soap would have been a special imported treat costing $15 a bar, not something I might have gotten at the corner CVS.
Lavender was a key ingredient in the bougie domestic fantasy sold by retailers like Williams Sonoma and L’Occitane en Provence. It wafted gently over the entire oeuvre of Peter Mayle, the author of “A Year in Provence,” among other books.
Now you can buy Downy Infusions Lavender Serenity fabric softener.
Linda G. Levy, the president of the Fragrance Foundation, an organization that promotes and supports the perfume industry, has noticed lavender as a highlighted ingredient in luxury fragrances like Libre, new from YSL, as well as popular perfumes like Ariana Grande’s Cloud, which features a top note of lavender and won the foundation’s fragrance of the year award in June.
“Lavender is easy for consumers to translate,” Levy said. “It’s something they can understand without having to do a lot of research.”
Unlike ylang-ylang or vetiver, two other frequently used botanicals, “you hear ‘lavender’ and a visual comes to mind,” she added.
For Levy, it conjures a trip she took to Fayence, in the south of France. “Litter on the street there is lavender,” she said. For someone else, lavender may bring to mind a grandmother who used a sachet to freshen a dresser drawer.
Jeannie Ralston, a New York journalist turned Texas lavender farmer who wrote a memoir about her experience, “The Unlikely Lavender Queen,” believes lavender’s popularity comes, in part, from the way it activates all the senses, especially when standing amid rows of it.
“You’ve got the smell, but to look at it, it’s almost like a pointillist painting,” Ralston said. “It’s a beautiful, sensual experience to be in a lavender field.”
Dahlias planted tightly to the horizon can be beautiful, too. And roses also evoke grandmotherly nostalgia. But lavender promises something those plants don’t, something very much desired in this age of fractious politics, climate dread and unceasing demands on our time: escape.
Though the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans believed in its benefits, as both a cosmetic and a medicinal plant, lavender’s true time has come in the stressed-out early 21st century.
Clinical studies in both animals and humans have shown the plant to have calming effects, reducing anxiety and helping to bring on sleep. The key ingredient is linalool, an alcohol component of lavender odor. Sniffing it has been likened to popping a Valium.
Dr. Andrew Weil, an integrative-medicine guru, hangs dry bundles of lavender in his bedroom as a sleep aid and cooks with the herb. In yoga studios, it’s a common practice for the instructor to end class by daubing essential oil of lavender on spent students’ temples. And the oil has long been used in aromatherapy.
Now, artisanal wellness brands and billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies alike have packaged and marketed lavender to a freaked-out populace. No longer is it just a nice way to freshen your linen drawer. It’s become a magic ingredient: a plant-based Prozac put into therapy balms, sleep creams and stress-relief moisturizing lotions, like the one from Aveeno, a division of Johnson & Johnson, which claims on the purply bottle that it “calms & relaxes.”
For consumers, especially millennials fluent in Goop-speak and hungry for ways to unplug from 24/7 work and digital lives, lavender has come to mean calm.
Anit Hora, 39, the founder of M.S Skincare, a vegan skin care line made in Brooklyn, sprays lavender mist around her office when things get hectic, and has hung dried bunches in her bathroom, pressing them to scent her shower. She also named the brand’s restorative lavender body oil Aum, after the yoga chant more commonly spelled “ohm.”
“It’s very calming to chant ‘ohm,’” Hora said. “And that’s the effect I wanted this to have.”
Wexstten’s Feel Good Potion is “there to reduce stress and anxiety in a world full of chaos,” she said. (The label instructs users to “apply to temples, third eye and wrists. Breathe deeply.”)
While Wexstten doesn’t think there’s a lavender boom, she said, “I think people are paying attention more, handling their self-care. In an old-world apothecary, lavender is not a new thing.”
Barbara Close, 59, grew up going to such apothecaries with her aunt, who lived outside Paris, and became familiar with the European tradition of using lavender and other herbs for grooming and health purposes.
“She loved to take me to these little herboristeries,” or herb shops, Close said. “They’d make her passion flower tincture.”
In 1995, Close founded Naturopathica, which operates day spas in Manhattan and East Hampton and sells skin care products and herbal remedies. It began as an herb shop like the ones she had known in France. “We had tinctures and teas, essential oils,” she said. “Back then, it was a strange concept for most people.”
Twenty-five years later, once-obscure herbs like echinacea are sold at CVS, adaptogens like Siberian ginseng and reishi are being touted as answers to any number of problems, and don’t get us started on turmeric. “Lavender,” Close said, “has gone along with that growth.”
According to the alternative medicine guides and lavender farmer websites, the herb is a cure-all for many, many ailments: anxiety, insomnia, migraines, depression, flatulence, hair loss and more.
“Some books have two, three pages of attributes that lavender possesses, and a lot of it seems far-fetched,” said Charley Opper, 68, an owner of Cache Creek Lavender Farm in Rumsey, Calif.
Opper makes body mist, bath soap and 21 other products from the lavender he grows, and he sticks with the folkloric wisdom that dates back to Pliny the Elder. “What I tell people is it’s a sleep aid, a relaxant and it does have anti-bacterial properties to it,” he said.
In all his years, Opper said, “I’ve only run into one or two people that said they did not like” the scent of lavender. And he has found a receptive audience for both his products and his message by driving three hours south each weekend, where a demographic of plugged-in, maxed-out tech workers are eager to buy nature’s chill pill.
“I go to Silicon Valley, and I market my products in Palo Alto and Menlo Park,” Opper said. “The essential oil that I sell at my stand is well sought after at this point.”
But where does the most special, elite lavender come from? The royal purple fields of Valensole, France? Partly, yes. But also: Bulgaria.
Though the country has been slow to catch on as an Instagram destination, its temperate climate is ideal for growing lavender. To some noses, the Bulgarian strains are preferred over the French.
“It has a more distinct, exotic scent,” said Wexstten, who sources Bulgarian lavender for her products. “It doesn’t have that candy-like scent that a lot of lavender can have.”
The largest seller of essential oils in the world, the Utah-based doTERRA, operates a distillery in Bulgaria, and production has increased exponentially to match demand, said Dr. Russell Osguthorpe, the company’s chief medical officer. The company sold about 38 kilograms of lavender oil in 2008, and sourced 152,000 kilograms to support sales in 2018.
“We have spent a long time optimizing our lavenders for their aroma because we use them in aromatherapy. You might even call it a pharmaceutical standard. Not all species of lavender are created equal.”
(Not all lavender is even grown in a field: It’s likely that the $3 bottle of lavender oil at the chain drugstore, or the liquid hand sanitizer at the supermarket, derives its lavender scent from synthetic perfume made in a laboratory.)
If the small and medium-size lavender farms stretching from the Sequim Valley in Washington state to the East End of Long Island in New York don’t significantly contribute to industrial-scale production, they perform another role. No longer do Americans have to go to France to stand in a lavender field or picturesquely fill a straw basket with all-natural products.
When Ralston and her husband, Robb Kendrick, a photographer, started their commercial lavender farm in Texas, back in 2000, the couple had little experience with lavender. But the herb proved easy to grow and easier still to monetize.
“We ended up with 97 different lavender products,” Ralston said, ticking off a list that included bath balms, bath salts, bath oils, essential oils, eye creams, sachets and “lavender smokes,” or dried and bundled stalks to put on a fire. “We actually sold lavender-scented pencils at one point. And my husband said, ‘That’s enough.’”
One year, at the annual lavender festival the couple started, 17,000 people tramped through their fields in the Texas Hill Country.
“Lavender seems to be crack cocaine for a certain set of the population,” Kendrick said to Ralston at the time.
Thy sold the lavender farm to an employee in 2006 because they wanted to live for a time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and raise their sons to be bilingual. But Ralston, a founder of the digital magazine NextTribe, said there are times she wishes they had held on, watching how the American lavender craze has, yes, blossomed.
Aimee Crane, who four years ago started Bee Loved Lavender farm, has brought culinary lavender to northeast Ohio. Jim Morford has brought homemade soaps, lotions, creams and infused teas to Kansas (“You really have to want to grow it in our hot climate,” Morford said). And Kaia Nustad has brought the joy of lavender to the Carmel Valley in California (and to Etsy).
Last year, Nustad hosted 54 weddings on her 8-acre plot, and has sold thousands of lavender bouquets to brides. “Millennials love it for weddings,” she said. “It’s the new boho thing.”
Nustad discovered lavender’s popularity by accident, in 2014, when she visited a farm near the “lavender trail” in Washington. And two years after planting her own farm, she still asks herself what it is about lavender that makes people respond the way they do.
But, she reasoned, “I’ve never had a sad person on my farm. When you look out over the fields, it’s calming. It’s that serene calming feeling, like when you stare over the ocean.”