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Lavender farmers want attention from foodies

Hidecote Pink Variety of culinary lavender.
Sequim Lavender Farmers Association
Hidecote Pink Variety of culinary lavender.

The area around Sequim on Washington's Olympic peninsula is known as one of the top lavender growing regions in the nation. Most of that lavender ends up as dried flowers or scented potpourri.

Nowadays, it’s also ending up in food. The growers are meeting today (April 30th) to discuss the safest ways to make those flower buds edible, using a certification process.

Ideally, the lavender you eat should be a different variety from the typical lavender grown for decoration, according to Steve Ragsdale, who runs Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm in Sequim. He’s been leading an effort to create a “Sequim certified” process and label for local edible lavender. For example, the typical scented lavender may have an unpleasant camphor taste.

How it’s harvested and processed matters, he says.

“It’s subject to a lot of dirt and a lot of different things. And if it’s not processed correctly, people can be eating bugs, all sorts of different things.”

The Sequim lavender certification process, on the advice of local and federal health agencies, will require inspections and occasional testing of their products. Samples will be sent to a Washington State Department of Agriculture lab, which will measure their "purity."

Lavender on the menu

You can find examples of lavender in restaurants around Seattle, and in packages at your grocery store, such as teas and even barbeque sauces.

If you go for a drink at the Fairmont Hotel’s Terrace Lounge in downtown Seattle, you might be tempted by bartender Michael Vezzoni’s lavender martini:

“I infuse the lavender buds with white granulated sugar. You moisten the rim of glass with an orange, and just kind of dip it in there, with the lavender on the outside of the glass.”

Elsewhere, Tom Douglas offers a lavender fondue at his Palace Kitchen, and Molly Moon’s has a lavender ice cream.

Where does that lavender come from?

Sometimes, the chef doesn't even know. The Sequim growers say they're trying to differentiate themselves from imported lavender, which may come from Vietnam or China.

Other food producers have followed the certification path, but usually only after a food poisoning disaster, says Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in lawsuits over food safety and keeps a close track on the industry.

“Usually, these things come out of a problem, like there's a bad actor and they want to reform the industry,” he says.

A prime example is spinach, where growers faced a disaster six years ago, after some packaged spinach from California, was contaminated with a deadly E. coli bacteria. Growers turned to certification processes to reassure consumers. More recently, cantaloupe growers in Colorado had a similar experience.

So far, nobody’s noted any problems with contaminated lavender. Perhaps, the bigger purpose is to create a brand for the Sequim Lavender Farmers Association. Even though lavender’s been used as an herb since Roman times, it’s mostly been a decorative plant or household fragrance in our day.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.