How One Small Town Became the 'Lavender Capital of North America'

Lavender Capital of North America: Tiptoeing through lavender
All. (Photo: Catie Leary)

All photos: Catie Leary

When you imagine lush fields of lavender, the first place that comes to mind is often southern France, which has led the world in commercial production of these fragrant flowering bushes for many years. Despite this long-held dominance, lavender can be grown throughout the world as long as the climate is sunny and low in humidity.

One such location is Sequim, Washington, which has earned the nickname the "Lavender Capital of North America." Located on the Olympic Peninsula, Sequim (pronounced "skwim") has spent the last 20 years transforming arid farmland into a fragrant prairie of purple blooms.

So, what's the secret to their lavender-infused luck?

Lavender Capital of North America: Bee on flowers

Rain Shadow

It all starts with the unique climate of the northern Olympic Peninsula.

Despite the relentlessly rainy reputation of the Pacific Northwest (and especially the Olympic peninsula), Sequim stays quite sunny and arid throughout the year due to its position at the downwind base of the Olympic Mountains, a placement that results in a meteorological phenomenon known as a "rain shadow."

How a rain shadow works

As illustrated in the diagram at right, rain shadows form when humid prevailing winds roll in from the ocean and are intercepted by mountains. As the moist air rises along the mountain's windward side, it begins to cool down, condense and precipitate. This process essentially dehumidifies the air by the time it makes it over the mountain peaks, casting a "shadow of dryness" down along the leeward side of the mountain.

The effect of this phenomenon is striking when you compare Sequim with a town situated on the other end of the mountains, such as Forks (yes, that Forks). While the city of Forks receives a whopping 119 inches of annual rainfall, Sequim only clocks in at around 10 to 15 inches a year — about the same amount of rainfall that sunny Los Angeles receives.

Lavender Capital of North America: White and purple rows

With so little rainfall, Sequim nearly qualifies as a desert, but early Western settlers who came to the "Sequim Prairie" in the 1850s to farm were able to circumvent this challenge by digging irrigation canals. Farming remained the primary industry of Sequim for over a century, but as more housing and commercial developments began to take root in response to an influx of people (mostly retirees) in the late 20th century, evidence of this important agricultural history began to dwindle.

Hoping to preserving these historically significant agricultural lands, farmers began turning their attention away from conventional crops and livestock in the mid-1990s to focus on more niche crops, like lavender — a plant that naturally thrives in sunny, dry climates like Sequim's.

Lavender Capital of North America: Flowers from above

The various species of this beloved old world plant are found as far east as India and as far west as the Canary Islands, and because of this wide distribution, humans have spent thousands of years growing and experimenting with the plant's many applications, which include culinary uses, aromatherapy and landscaping, just to name a few.

Versatile Lavender Jumpstarts Industry

Because of the plant's sheer versatility, the plan to grow lavender in Sequim was not just about filling the town's fields with something aesthetically and aromatically pleasing — it was a way the community could jumpstart an entirely new industry based on the buying and selling of homegrown and homemade lavender-based goods.

Lavender Capital of North America: Thick lavender flower bushes

Almost 20 years later, the pivotal shift towards this fragrant purple flower has transformed Sequim into a major cultural tourist destination on the Olympic peninsula. Today, there are dozens of lavender farms spread across the Sequim-Dungeness Valley, all of which produce more lavender than any other region in the contiguous United States.

Lavender Capital of North America: Sunny day at Purple Haze lavender farm

Purple Haze Lavender

Purple Haze Lavender (above) is just one of several farms in Sequim that grows, harvests, distills and sells its own lavender. In addition to being a fully functional farm, Purple Haze is also a tourist destination where visitors can wander the fields at their leisure and even pick their own lavender bouquets.

Lavender Capital of North America: Purple Haze farm gift shop

In addition to pick-your-own bouquets, Purple Haze sells all kinds of lavender-based goods, like sachets, soaps, tinctures, lotions, candles and even salad dressing and coffee! Their biggest crowd-pleaser is the homemade lavender-infused ice cream, which they sell by the scoop in a small hut outside the main gift shop.

Lavender Capital of North America: Purple Haze lavender ice cream stand

The ice cream stand features several lavender-infused flavors, including lemon custard, peppermint, lemon sherbet and white chocolate (below at right). For those who don't like ice cream, there are also lavender lemonades, teas and sodas.

Lavender Capital of North America: Lavender ice cream

When to Visit

If you're hoping to witness Sequim's lavender in all its aromatic glory, the best time to visit farms like Purple Haze is in the summer when the flowers are in full bloom and ready to be picked. To celebrate the harvest season, farmers and locals put on annual events like the Sequim Lavender Festival and the Tour de Lavender that allow visitors to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the farms as well as attend workshops, demonstrations and live musical events.

Lavender Capital of North America: Relaxing in adirondacks at Purple Haze
Lavender Capital of North America: Buzzing bees