Texas Traveler: Lavenderfest

Long after the bluebonnets have shed their petals, another lilac flower blooms in the Hill Country of Texas. Lavenderfest, August 8 in Chappell Hill, is devoted to the 2,500-year-old herb that is used in everything from cooking to aromatherapy to fragrance production.

The Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, about eight miles north of the town that shares its name, is one of the few in Texas to grow the herb. (Another larger farm is in Blanco. Its owner, Jeannie Ralston, wrote a book called "The Unlikely Lavender Queen".) Chappell Hill's owners, Jim and Debbie McDowell, former Houstonians, moved to the farm in 2001 and grow two varieties of lavender on 23 acres. The Provence lavender is currently blooming, according to gift shop clerk and tour guide Pam Rossman.

"It's about the only thing that will grow," she said. "It's real persnickety about the soil. Sweet lavender blooms during the bluebonnet season."

The plants look like stationary green tumbleweeds on the farm's rolling hills. Inside the gift shop, everything is purple, even Rossman's clothes. The smell of lavender is strong. It might be coming from the lavender-scented soaps and lotions, the dried lavender wands hanging on the wall, or the lavender-flavored coffee warming on a table.

Rossman used to grow alfalfa sprouts in her garage and sell them wholesale, and describes herself as a life-long "plant kind of person." She met the McDowells via the crafts she made and sold at local festivals. Debbie McDowell makes the lotions, linen sprays and other bath items sold in the gift shop.

Rossman is eager to share all she knows about the herb. It's her who tells us about the history of the herb and it's uses during the Black Plague, when it was thought to prevent spread of the disease. But it has many other uses.

"It's a main staple of Italian cooking. You can replace any recipe with rosemary with lavender by a third."

The McDowells also grow oregano, rosemary, and tarragon. At the farm, you can cut your own fresh herbs for $2 a bag.

Lavenderfest, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. next Saturday, will feature booths selling handmade crafts, live bluegrass music, and lavender plants for sale. Funky Art Cafe in Brenham will be selling food made with the herb, like turkey wraps with lavender peach salsa, lavender lemon cake. Windy Hill Winery will have a booth where vinophiles can try their foot at grape-stomping.

If you can't make it to the festival, the farm is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Visits are always free. The farm also offers tours for groups of 12 people or more.

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