March 23 • 01:35 AM

Where will meets passion

Lavender Festival a culmination of woman's determination to heal

Iris Lee Underwood will welcome guests to her third annual Yule Love It Lavender Festival this Friday and Saturday at her Leonard home where fields of ‘Grosso’ and ‘Munstead’ varieties will be in full bloom. photo by Maria Brown.

July 18, 2007
It's a dizzying list—all of the titles Iris Lee Underwood can lay claim too, but don't suggest she's overly blessed with special skills.

"It's will, not talent," she says assuredly.

Okay, so maybe it's a talent for harnessing and steering her strong will and passions to become an accomplished writer, photographer, painter, consultant, farmer, gardener, herbalist, educator, mentor and entrepreneur.

This weekend, Iris and husband, Mel, will host the third annual Yule Love It Lavender Festival at their Leonard home. It's the culmination of Iris's willfully-inspired interests. Her love of the fragrant herb will be on display. Guests can sample her lavender-infused teas, scones and brownies or snatch up sweet-smelling soaps and spritzers or a volume of Iris's poetry.

They'll have the chance to pick a bouquet of 'Grosso' or 'Munstead' and learn more about sustainability, herbs and bees from a symposium of speakers.

Within three short years, the festival has grown to draw hundreds of visitors...and Iris still insists it's the 18-hour days and stubbornness that got her where she is today.

"I have a strong will and a passion for beauty. You just don't give up—I guess that makes for a great mix," she says, staring out at her sunflowers and daylilies dancing in the breeze.

Iris's determination and the soil went head to head when the family moved to the country almost 20 years ago.

"We had a rake, that's it, for three acres—for a ravaged former alfalfa field," she says with a laugh.

Soon perennial beds were in bloom and Iris began to weave her growing love of nature through the characters in her young novel.

"They sustained their lives by farming, but I knew nothing about sustainability," she said.

A little digging in her family history, though, proved she wasn't so green to the concept.

From the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, her grandparents had gathered ginseng and ginger root to doctor their ailments. Planting huge gardens was a common fixture of her parents' generation, Iris recalled, and preserving that bounty was an annual tradition.

"We would go south on vacation every summer, can and preserve and bring it all home," she said.

"I did know something about sustainability. Farming is in my blood."

The medicinal herbs piqued her interest the most. Before long she was weeding and pruning in Seven Ponds Nature Center's herb garden where she came across lavender. She planted some among her perennials at home but it wasn't until a quiet day of weeding that she understood the plant's mastery of the soul and body.

Amidst the flowers' beauty, Iris's thoughts turned to her late daughter, Becky. She wiped away tears as the memories surfaced, but the pain seemed to have subsided. It had been seven years since she'd lost her daughter, she realized, the milestone so many psychologists talk about when it comes to working through grief.

"Then I realized, there was the scent of lavender on the tissue and a plant at my ankle...I knew the healing power of lavender," she said.

She wanted others to experience the benefits and beauty lavender brought her. She looked out across her yard and "saw ribbons of lavender. I knew I was a lavender farmer."

Immediately, doubts began to creep in about how she'd manage the farm and her freelance writing and consulting business, Encouraging Words.

"I knew it would be a struggle," Iris said.

"I didn't know the difference between any of the (lavender varieties) but I know it helps heal you, helps you sleep."

It was 2004, when Iris sunk 100 lavender plants into the ground and headed out to Sequim, Washington where she visited member farms of the Sequim Lavender Growers Association, learning the ins and outs of organizing and hosting a farm and festival.

"And Mel thought we were going on vacation," she says with a grin.

Iris returned, invigorated and encouraged to keep plodding on. Her first try in July 2005 was a "wonderful disaster—300 people came in the deluge of rain and thunder."

The next year, attendance doubled. Iris said she owes a close set of friends and advisors for helping her plan each year, improve upon the last and envision the future.

"They are part of the machinery when it comes to the festival and the festival serves as a platform for their gifts and talents," Iris said.

They'll sell their handmade unique wares at the festival or lend a hand in the craft tent.

As much as the festival is Yule Love It's 'magnum opus,' Iris loves to be able to connect with small tour groups. That's when she can delve into what makes lavender so great.

"The Romans used to use in it their baths. It's a great analgesic—I seldom have sore muscles or joints," she said.

Iris also credits the plant for helping alleviate her once frequent migraine headaches and elevating her mood. Essential oils are great as a topical application for burns and bites. Eczema, insomnia and depression are just some of the other ailments known to be cured with lavender.

Lavender is also great for cooking. Iris has worked the herb into recipes for scones, bread, brownies, ice cream, teas, marinades and more.

Of course, lavender is a great flower.

"It can be packaged and is long lasting. It will hold its scent forever in a cool, dark place," Iris said.

To top it all off, lavender is quite easy to grow. As long as it has adequate drainage, lavender will grow in all types of soil and tolerate some dry spells in the full sun.

Iris's fields contain 15 varieties of English lavenders and lavendins. Both are hardy in Michigan's climate and trump the French and Spanish varieties when it comes to cooking. The color of their blooms includes lavender, white, pink and yellow.

The showy French and Spanish lavenders are not winter hardy. They have serrated, fern-like leaves and frilly brachts at the flowers' tip.

'Grosso,' a popular English variety, tops the list of Iris's favorites.

"It's so dramatic," she said, holding up one of the long, purple stems.

It had been cut the previous morning by a group of at-risk high schoolers.

Iris is still shaking her head in amazement at the site of hulking teenage boys, skipping out to the lavender beds, with gathering baskets on their arms.

Helping others reconnect with the healing power of nature that their ancestors recognized fuels Iris's passion, and passion, she believes, ranks up there with talent.

It was a passion for words that drove her to become a bookworm, poet and eventually columnist for the Oxford Leader, despite her dyslexia.

It is her love for beauty, nature, wholeness and trailblazing that spurs her to grow lavender despite the long days and tight schedule.

And she's not close to slowing down, either. Future plans call for a spa day, continuing literary teas and her 'Learn About Lavender' lecture series.

"Dreams are energizing," Iris says with a smile.

More about the Yule Love It Lavender Festival:

•Friday and Saturday (July 20-21) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., rain or shine.

•960 Yule Rd., Leonard. From Dryden Rd. take Rochester Rd. south about eight miles, turn left onto Yule.

•$7 admission for two days, includes speaker symposium, parking and shuttle. Children 12 and under free.

•More than a dozen artisans will be selling glassware, pottery, soaps, planters, honey, herbs and more.

•A baking demonstration will be held both days at noon, poetry readings are slated for 2 p.m. both days and Iris will do book signings at 1 p.m.

•The speaker symposium runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The schedule is available on the festival web site,

•U-cut, dried bouquets and lavender plants will be on sale.

To learn more, call (248) 628-7814, email or visit

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03 - 23 - 19
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