HARWICH, Mass. -- A decade ago, when Cynthia Sutphin planted her first 400 lavender plants in a small garden outside her Harwich home, she wasn't certain why she was doing it.
Somehow, she says, she just knew the plant would catch on someday, and she wanted to be ready when it did.
Today, the owner of the Cape Cod Lavender Farm annually harvests more than 15,000 lavender plants and can barely keep up with the demand for oils, soaps, potpourri and plants fueled by a surge in consumers exploring natural remedies, homeopathy and aromatherapy.
''I knew that eventually lavender would hit it big,'' said Sutphin, 48. ''And I knew that I would be in the right place at the right time when it happened.''
Some say the ancient plant had its big break just last year when it was named Herb of the Year by the International Herb Organization in Virginia.
But others say its popularity has been steadily building for years with the increase in more health-conscious consumers.
''It's only recently that people started to notice it can be used for so much more than just perfume,'' said Peggy McElgunn, director of the herb association. ''People are finally waking up to it and becoming smarter.''
To the untrained eye -- or nose -- lavender is just another flowering plant with deep purple buds and a scent reminiscent of a grandmother's perfume.
But to Sutphin and other herb enthusiasts, it is a near mystical herb that can be used to cure headaches, induce sleep, season pasta or even sweeten lemonade.
When pressed, the flower buds release an oil that is used for massage oil, soaps, perfume and air freshener. And when dried correctly, the flowers can retain their scent and most of their color for years, Sutphin said.
''It's something our grandparents knew about,'' she said. ''Our parents didn't, but now we're rediscovering lavender. It skipped a generation.''
And now that people have begun to notice it again, just about anything having to do with lavender is not only popular, but big business.
Sutphin's farm is beginning to see more competition from smaller farms around the region, including the Franklin County Lavender Growers in western Massachusetts, a cooperative of about 40 farmers with about 3,500 plants among them.
Farms are flourishing across the country as well, including the Olympic Peninsula, where the North American Lavender Conference is held each year. More than 60 farms and herb nurseries in states from coast to coast are registered members of the International Herb Association.
And where there was once just a handful of books about herbs and their healing qualities, today there are more than 200 books in print on lavender alone.
''I think people have a growing need to get back to nature,'' said David Schiller, a spokesman for the International Aromatherapy and Herb Association, based in Phoenix. ''Especially in cities with no trees or grass. This lets them get (a taste of) nature again.''
''I could sit here and make soap all day and I would still run out,'' said Denise Schwartz, who is a member of the western Massachusetts cooperative. Demand has doubled since last year, she said.
Sutphin opened her farm to the public just four years ago. The number of visitors has risen from 2,000 in the first year to 4,000 in the second to 8,000 in the third. This year, business already has quadrupled, she said.
She plans to expand her tiny shop, which is now housed in a shed at the end of the winding driveway that leads to her farm. And next year she says she and her husband, Matthew, may have to hire some full-time help.
''We're getting too big to run this whole thing ourselves,'' Sutphin said. ''It's just no longer possible.''
On her 11 acres of lush fields, she grows eight varieties of lavender. For a few weeks each year, most of the eight varieties are in bloom, painting her landscape with a delicate purple brush.
And when all the flowers are out and the breeze blows just right, there is no sweeter sight or scent in the world, she said.
''It's beautiful to look at, and pleasing to the eyes and the nose,'' she said. ''Once you're hooked, you're hooked.''
Today, Sutphin and her husband sell their lavender in bulk to home decor doyen Martha Stewart and to individual customers who find the farm.
And even in the dead of winter, when the Cape Cod roads are unplowed and her dirt driveway is nearly impossible to find, there is always someone out there looking for lavender, she said.
''What can I say?'' she said. ''People love it.''
On the Net:
Cape Cod Lavender Farm: http://www.capecodlavenderfarm.com
International Herb Association: http://www.iherb.org
International Aromatherapy and Herb Association: http://aztec.asu.edu/makingscents/index.html
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