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Alii Chang shows sprigs of lavender as he gives a tour of Alii Kula Lavender farm on the slopes of Mount Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii.
Alii Chang shows sprigs of lavender as he gives a tour of Alii Kula Lavender farm on the slopes of Mount Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii. (Patricia Harris for the Boston Globe)

Bringing lavender to Maui, he cultivates a purple paradise

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2006

KULA, Hawaii -- About five years ago, Alii Chang switched from raising tropical flowers to growing lavender on the upland slopes of Maui's Mount Haleakala -- and he hasn't looked back. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, he'll sit out on one of his decks, sip a lavender-infused margarita, and gaze across his gardens to the distant ocean below.

Alas, Chang does not whip up those signature margaritas (with Maui sea salt on the rim of the glass) for visitors. But his little piece of paradise, Alii Kula Lavender, is definitely all lavender, all the time. And he does serve a more proper lavender tea on a shady lanai overlooking the property.

Once my friends and I had joined a handful of other travelers seated at round tables, server Paulette Krueger poured lavender-infused tea with chamomile, mint, and lemon. The drink was sweetened with lavender-infused honey. As Krueger passed out scones, she pointed out the lavender buds that had been mixed into the batter before baking. ''This is the one culinary item where you can see the lavender," she said. ''Otherwise, the lavender flavor is infused," as was the case with the Maui peach and strawberry guava jams that we spooned onto our scones. Everything was fresh and tasty, if a little mono-flavored.

As we ate, Krueger regaled us with the many uses of the plant with the pretty purple flowers. ''Lavender is a natural disinfectant and bug repellent," she said. ''It also relieves headaches and sinus congestion." She grabbed a small cloth bag. ''Lavender is recognized as a natural calming agent," she said. She squeezed the bag hard to release a whiff of scent. ''I keep one of these in my car to relieve tension."

We began to think we were trapped in a live infomercial until Chang appeared to lead us on a garden tour. ''I'm one of those mad garden people," he admitted right off the bat, and as we followed the paths through his carefully tended plantings, it was hard not to share his enthusiasm. ''Lavender is totally new to Maui," he said, explaining that he wanted to introduce something different into the island's more common agricultural mix of bananas, pineapples, and protea (a cutting flower). ''We're in 4,000 feet of elevation," he said. ''I was looking for a drought-tolerant plant. There's enough moisture in the air, so there's no need for irrigation."

Lavender fit the bill. In fact, plants grown on sunny hillsides like Chang's thrive and produce the greatest quantity of essential oil, the source of lavender's distinctly haunting aroma. Chang grows 45 of the roughly 200 cultivars of lavender -- about 25,000 plants in all -- on an 8-acre plot that he calls his ''Monet painting."

''Feel free to touch the plants," he encouraged. ''They don't mind being squeezed." Every so often he would pull a folding knife from his apron pocket, cut a few sprigs from several specimens, and pass them around. ''They all have a different scent," he said. He pointed to one short, bushy shrub. ''That's the French lavender we use in the scones."

The lavender blooms most profusely from June through August. But even on a late October visit many of the woody plants were tipped with flowers. ''The English varieties produce all year round for us," Chang said. Every so often, a gaudy, voluptuous protea flower punctuated the subtle landscape of gray-green and purple and reminded us we were not in Provence.

After about an hour, Chang released us to explore on our own. Even those of us generally skeptical of the benefits of aromatherapy (me, for one) had to admit that there was something inherently soothing about wandering the sinuous garden paths with the warm sun on our skin and the scent of lavender in the air.

Eventually, the paths lead to the Lavender Studio Gift Shop. ''All our products are made here in Maui's upcountry," Krueger had told us at the start of our visit. There seemed to be few products that couldn't be enhanced with a touch of lavender -- from bath gel to sunscreen, coffee (regular or decaf) to salad dressing. Chang is a champion of local products and ingredients. Lavender combines with goat's milk and coconut to make soap, or with sea salt to make an exfoliating scrub. Local honey and sugar are infused with lavender. Fruits (peaches, lilikoi, strawberry guava) become jams and jellies.

Among the more intriguing specialty items were aromatherapy pet shampoo and an edible lavender love potion. Perhaps the most inspired combination was lavender and chocolate. The resulting dark, rich truffles have to be the ultimate feel-good food.

All that's left to wish for is a margarita.

Alii Kula Lavender
1100 Waipoli Road (off Route 37)
Kula, Maui, Hawaii
808-878-8090 (reservations), 808-878-3004 (general information)
www.aliikulalavender.com

Gift shop open daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Lavender Garden Tea Tour ($35) offered daily 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Luncheon Garden Tour ($60) offered on a more limited schedule.

Contact Cambridge-based freelance writer Patricia Harris at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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