Drying Fresh Lavender

By Dr. Bill MacElroy

Dried lavender makes a beautiful, long lasting flower for off-season decorating. The process of drying lavender is fairly straight forward and easy for everyone to accomplish. Now, early June, is a perfect time in Sonoma County to harvest fresh lavender for drying.

First off, it’s important to understand the lavender harvest cycle. The first harvest occurs when the spike is approximately one-half open and the bottom half of the whorls have opened. Let’s take a look at the parts of the lavender flower spike to understand the different features.

When the first harvest is ready, the whorls on the bottom half of the spike have burst buds (calyx) and the corollas are just beginning to open. The buds at the top of the spike should be colorful, but not yet open. The opened flowers on the bottom of the spike are highly fragrant and firmly attached to the spike stem. This period lasts only about 6 weeks (in California from mid-May through mid-June). If you want to keep lavender as a decoration, this is the time to pick!

The first harvest takes bunches of the full stem (both haulm and spike) which is then hung, upside down, in a dry and dark environment for about three weeks before disturbing. During this time, the oils in the cut flower concentrate in the spike and the whorls “set,” meaning that they won’t fall off just by touching them. The spike needs to be dry before use in floral arrangements. While drying, the scent of the lavender is very pronounced and will add fragrance to the whole room.

Following the three-week drying period, you can take the dry bunches apart and store the individual stems in a dark, dry container: A large capacity, opaque plastic storage container is ideal. Be sure they are quite dry by this point so that you won’t get mold. If stored in a cool area, these stems will last for floral arrangements for about a year.

The second harvest involves plants in which the spike is not only fully opened but also beginning to dry on the plant. This is an ideal time to cut for distillation and producing essential oils and hydrosols. In California, this period lasts from late July through the first rains (late October.) One sure sign that the lavender is ready for distillation, is when the bees have stopped visiting the flowers—which means that the nectar has faded and all that is left is precious oil.

Once you have dried lavender from the first harvest for floral arrangements, you will find that over time the spike will begin to shed the flower parts. Rather than letting this become a mess, this is your opportunity to give the lavender a second fragrant life. Now is the time for “garbling the spike” by running your fingers down the spike (from the top to the bottom) removing all the flower parts.

You can also take a bundle of full, dried stems and beat it on the sides of a deep, clean container. Pass the threshed lavender through a fine-mesh garden sieve to first remove pollen and dust, and then through a medium sieve to catch excess stems, leaves or other extraneous plant parts.

Using either method, you’ll be left with a perfect blend of lavender buds for potpourris and/or sachets. Just crush the flowers and it will unleash a new explosion of lavender scent. The essential oil in these dried flowers has been known to remain potent for up to twenty years.

Dr. Bill MacElroy is a member of the United States Lavender Grower’s Association and is the general manager of Monte-Bellaria, a West Sonoma County lavender farm. www.monte-bellaria.com

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