Orcas Island’s apothecary turns 20 and sees a sustainable future in aromatic artisan products
In the little hamlet of Olga on Orcas Island, Chris and Eliza Morris have built a garden paradise around their sustainable business, Island Thyme, a purveyor of delicious-smelling herbal lotions, salves, soaps and sprays that nourish the skin and body with a broad harvest of herbs such as chamomile, calendula, cinnamon, rose, and, of course, lavender.
The stunning intensely purple spikes are what brought me to Island Thyme’s headquarters, to talk with Chris and Eliza and watch them harvest and process their aromatic crop. On a warm, sunny Sunday in July, I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to take a ferry from Friday Harbor, on my ‘home island’ of San Juan, where I live, to my ‘dream island,’ where I lived for three years – Orcas Island. When the ferry motors through Wasp Passage and turns past lush green islands to dock at Orcas Landing, my anxiety softens and the worries of everyday life fall away, and the drive alongside pastoral fields, through the quaint village of Eastsound, then through the beautiful winding forest roads of Moran State Park’s majestic old-growth fir and cedar forests and through the one-lane bridge to the other side.
Orcas Island’s History of Abundance
Just a mile past the park, Olga is a tiny, historic village of artists and farmers. The Orcas Island Artworks is an artists’ co-op of more than 40 artists who sell their paintings, sculpture, jewelry, textile, and paper art in a historic strawberry barreling plant that at its height in the early 1940s packaged and barged tens of thousands of pounds of strawberries, strawberry plants, plums, apples, cherries and more, to the mainland, making Orcas the top producer of fruit in Washington at the time.
When irrigation made eastern Washington the region’s breadbasket and orchard, the fruit business in the islands faltered. Sport fishing and tourism rose to take its place as the main island businesses, but in the background, the islands have always had a vigorous agricultural life, and in recent years, many more businesses have grown up around agricultural, artisan products and agritourism. Farmers’ markets flourish, offering an abundance of island grown produce, meats, flowers, herbs, cheeses and more. Farm-grown and foraged botanicals and heritage fruits are being used in amazing wines, gins, liqueurs, beers and value-added products such as preserves, lotions and more.
A Precious Crop
Lavender harvest is a special day, when the sun warms the volatile oils and the breeze blows the pungent aroma of these beautiful flowers towards us. I meet Chris and Eliza in their workshop kitchen, a former chicken coop that they transformed into a commercial kitchen space where they create their lotions and soaps by hand.
Eliza brings a bucket, and we strolled down to the garden, which overlooks Olga’s Artworks and Mount Entrance, a massive outcrop overlooking the entrance to East Sound, and a popular mile-or-so uphill hike where locals go to watch the sunset or moonrise.
The lavender garden is in an old orchard, where some of the original apple and pear trees preside over the garden like old, gnarled wizards holding their fruit like little lanterns.
Chris and Eliza reach down to the clouds of long, spiked flowers, bending bunches of them over and cutting each bunch with clippers.
They harvest two types of lavender here:
Lavendula angustifolia, or English lavender formerly known as Lavendula officianalis, is a shorter, colorful flower known for its ornamental uses;
Lavandin grossohas longer spikes and a stronger scent because it also contains camphor, making its aromatic oil perfect for distilling into scented and medicinal products.
As the bucket fills, Chris tells me how their business started, when Eliza worked as an herbalist on Cortez Island in Canada for several years, and wanted to find a similar situation on an island in the U.S. They had both moved from the East Coast, but met at Evergreen State College. When Eliza ended up moving to Orcas, Chris moved to be with her, and she worked growing flowers and started creating products with her herbs just down the road at Rainwater Farm. In 1996, they started Island Thyme, beginning with a few products sold at small seasonal markets, eventually buying this farm with its house and outbuildings in 2006, completely renovating them into the charming and useful working farm and business it is today.
Chris tells me of the early days when they would send away for samples (and still do this) of herbs, spices and other ingredients from around the world, slowly building up relationships with growers of some of their favorites, such as sea buckthorn berry, Neroli oil, grapefruit oil, sandalwood, eucalyptus, ginger root, peppermint, comfrey, cinnamon and others.
We take our harvest into the workshop, and lay out flat baskets, then Eliza and Chris take small bundles of the lavender buds, rubbing them between their hands and let the tiny buds fall into the basket. This type of English lavender is bright purple and very aromatic, and are perfect for Island Thyme’s aromatic soaps, especially their Orcas Lavender Soap.
As they rub the lavender, the aroma rises and fills the sunny space. All around us are the results of the process of making these artisan products, with stacks of colorful soaps, tubs of spices and herbs, bowls, baskets and soap forms. Healing salves, toners and mists, calming lotions, muscle rubs are just a few of the dozens of products they make.
Now, Chris and Eliza are looking forward to continuing to grow the business, with their products carried by 15 shops in the San Juan Islands, including one of their first supporters just across the road, the Orcas Island Artworks. Their products are also found in Seattle, Skagit County, Bellingham, on Vashon Island and beyond. Hopefully this dynamic couple will continue to spread their healing products and good scents to many more people.
See the complete list of stores that carry Island Thyme products.
Visit IslandThyme.com to see Chris and Eliza’s full line of artisan bodycare products.
Shannon Borg is a wine writer and author of The Green Vine: A Guide to West Coast Organic, Sustainable and Biodynamic Wines, and Chefs on the Farm: Inspiration and Recipes from Quillisascut Farm School for the Domestic Arts. You can find her at www.shannonborg.com.
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