'War of the lavenders': No flower power for these dueling Michigan festivals

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Lavender plants.

Armada — In the south of France, where it’s abundant, lavender is known for its calm, soothing effect.

In southeast Michigan, the purple plant is having the opposite impact.

When the popular Michigan Lavender Festival announced it was moving to a new location this year, its old landlord decided to hold a competing event.

What’s more, the landlord, Blake’s Orchard & Cider Mill, is holding it on the same weekend as the other festival and lured away some of its vendors.

Sacre bleu!

The original festival is being held Thursday to Saturday at Eastern Michigan Fairgrounds in Imlay City. Blake’s soiree runs Friday to Sunday at its apple orchard in Armada, 13 miles to the southeast.

Jennifer Vasich, founder and creative director of The Original Lavender Festival, poses at the Michigan Floral Marketplace tent at the Eastern Michigan Fairgrounds in Imlay City.

Jennifer Vasich, organizer of the original festival, accused Blake’s of stealing her idea. She wouldn’t say whether she talked to an attorney.

“Sometimes people see the opportunity to expand outside their own mission to make money,” Vasich said. “That’s the beauty of our country. But when free enterprise infringes on someone’s intellectual property, that becomes an issue.”

Blake's denied it purloined anything.

“They’re doing their thing and we’re doing ours,” said Andrew Blake, grandson of the company founder and co-owner of Blake’s Hard Cider. “We both have enough lavender for everyone.”

Even some vendors have joined the fray. Mind you, these are businesses whose names radiate positivity — Peace Love & Tacos, Happy Tails Pet Supply, Harmonic Namaste, Bee Joyful Shop.

When someone used the Blake’s festival’s Facebook page to announce that food trucks would be at the other event, the wife of a Blake’s vendor retorted with a harrumph.

“Wow posting about another event is really tacky,” wrote Annie Jelinek of Port Huron.

From soothing to 'chaotic'

Lavender looks pretty, smells good and makes you feel better. What’s not to love?

The herb has been around since Cleopatra. Ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, though the Michigan skirmish hasn’t reached that point.

Skip ahead a few millenniums and you go from mummies to Vasich, a success coach who uses oils to help people live a stress-free life. Lavender has long been her purple passion project.

For 17 years, she has built what may be the best-smelling festival in Michigan. What began with 650 people in her backyard in 2002 has sprouted into 17,000 people visiting the apple orchard last year.

“It’s lovely,” said Nan Manley of Vassar, one of the 17,000. “They have everything you can think of, lavender lotions, lavender food, lavender ice cream.”

Vendors such as Naturally Nutty, Denise’s Pieces Crochet and The Cheese Lady sell lavender-infused candles, oils, soaps, art, lotions, food and home décor.

Relax With Flax has a heated unicorn filled with lavender buds. Her name is Zoey.

The “lavender goodness” doesn’t end there, Vasich said. The festival has classes, workshops, even yoga.

Before the July festival turned from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" to "Macbeth," its popularity seemed to grow every year.

It has outgrown three locations and, last year, the orchard began to feel too snug, Vasich said. The grounds were cramped and it took a while to find a parking spot, she said.

Blake’s began hosting the event in 2011.

“It just didn’t have the same down-home, relaxed atmosphere,” Vasich said. “As it grew it became increasingly chaotic. That’s the opposite of lavender.”

Also, Blake’s sometimes struggled to grow lavender, she said. Festivalgoers were allowed to roam the orchard to pluck the plant.

And so Vasich moved her event 13 miles away to the Imlay City fairgrounds.

'Enough lavender for everyone'

The venerable Blake’s, which opened in 1946, has long been known for its own implements of goodness: warm donuts and fresh cider.

Vasich said she learned about Blake’s plans to have its own festival from vendors who had been contacted by the orchard. But Blake’s officials said they had told Vasich about their intentions right away.

The growing popularity of the festival shows there are more than enough people to attend both events, said Kaley Pittsley, marketing manager of Blake Farms.

“There are plenty of people in Michigan and Metro Detroit to celebrate lavender,” Pittsley said. “There’s enough lavender for everyone.”

Vasich first planned to have the Imlay City festival in June. The event would provide free shuttles to a nearby farm that grows lavender.

Indigo Lavender Farms grounds keeper Ron Ronat, of Lapeer, mows between rows of lavender at his 23-acre farm in Imlay City.

But she learned from the farm that the peak bloom time for the plant is mid-July, so she moved the festival to this weekend, which has been the traditional date of the event.

Vasich declined to say whether she knew Blake’s was holding its event on the same weekend.

“I’m the originator of the festival, by the way,” she said. “I’ve been around for 17 years. I’m not going to change the date of my event.”

Vasich changed the name of her event to the Original Michigan Lavender Festival.

If things weren’t dicey enough, there actually is a third lavender festival in Michigan this weekend.

The Lavender Harvest Festival will be held in Milan on Saturday. But it’s a more humble affair, lasting just a day compared with the three-day events in Armada and Imlay City.

One last quibble, if Vasich may.

Blake’s is copying her festival, down to its use of vendors, speakers and demonstrations, she said.

A description of Blake’s event on its website repeats, word for word, a photo caption describing the 2011 festival on Vasich’s Facebook page.

“With just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of city life, the Lavender Festival at Blake’s is a perfect mid-summer getaway,” reads Blake’s website. “Not only is this event a celebration of all the wonders of Lavender, but also an event that knits together local, talented artisans of one-of-a-kind hand-made goods!”

Blake's even used a photo of a Vasich vendor in advertising on its web page and social media. What made it worse was the business, Gabriel’s Garden, had been owned by Vasich until she sold it to a friend.

She complained to Blake’s, which promptly removed the picture.

“It’s important for a business to respect others,” Vasich said. “There’s plenty of room to do what they love, but they should try to do their own and not copy others.”

Dueling festivals prompt confusion

The dueling festivals have caused confusion among the lavender-loving populace.

Not realizing there were now two events, they didn’t know if this year’s fete was still in Armada or moved to Imlay City.

Blake’s has done little to clear things up.

Whenever someone wrote to its Facebook page to resolve the conflicting rumors, Blake’s didn’t acknowledge the existence of the other festival.

Typical is the following exchange:

“Isn’t it in Imlay City?” a resident asked.

Keith Wiley, right, of St. Clair Shores, an outdoor floral retailer specializing in perennial plants, especially lavender, gets help from David Weaver, 16, of North Branch, as they unload one-gallon lavender plants at the Michigan Floral Marketplace tent. Wiley is the brother of Jennifer Vasich.

“Blake’s is still holding a lavender festival, as we have in the past!” the orchard responded.

Blake’s officials told The Detroit News they weren’t trying to mislead anyone. They said they are more comfortable talking just about their own event.

One festivalgoer from Shelby Township took the two sides to task.

“Why don’t you act with peace and love and have them on different weekends?” Ruth Marentette wrote on Blake’s Facebook page.

Nor was she a fan of having them in the middle of July, or, as Marentette put it, “tropical heat heart attack weather.”

But others found some humor in the situation.

Karen Malone, who plans to attend both festivals, described the fracas by playing off the name of English civil wars in the 15th century.

“The war of the Lavenders,” she wrote on Facebook.

Whose purple reign?

So is this the beginning of the end of Vasich’s purple reign?

Not at all, she said. Most of the vendors are leaving with her, she said.

Vasich's website lists 166 vendors, speakers and others at her festival. Blake’s, which lowered its vendors’ fees, will have 136 participants, according to its web page.

“Our passion is lavender,” Vasich said. “We were doing it before it was cool.”

Rita Van Scyoc is sticking with Vasich.

The Dearborn Heights artist has sold her refurbished furniture at the festival for two years. It’s one of the most popular events she participates in, she said.

“I don’t see the other one (Blake’s) as a threat,” said Van Scyoc. “Jennifer has such a huge following.”

On the other hand, Lounies Soap is staying at Blake’s.

Employees set up for Blake's Lavender Festival at Blake's Orchard, 17985 Armada Center Rd. in Armada Twp., Wednesday afternoon The festival will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

The soap maker, which has been attending for six years, loves the setting. Annie Jelinek, whose husband, Lou, runs the company, said she used to come to the orchard as a kid.

“It’s phenomenal how many people come out, just for the love of a plant,” she said. “It’s lavender so no one is going to get angry.”

Jelinek had one regret. Some friends who are vendors will be at the other festival so she won’t see them this weekend.

Crazy Cluckers Ranch will be at both events.

Pearl Podlinsek, an egg decorator from Howell who calls herself the main Crazy Clucker, normally attends the festival and other events with her husband. This year, for the first time, they will split up with one going to Armada and the other Imlay City.

She likened the Vasich-Blake’s split to a divorce.

“We decided not to choose between mom and dad,” Podlinsek joked.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell