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Hit the Road

Washington County

The senses can be in for a wild treat as you make the rounds through the farms, gardens, eateries and other attractions in this historic area between Houston and Austin

If you thought the dog days of summer were just something to be endured, take a trek to Washington County, where the weather is just right for nurturing glorious fields of fragrant lavender. Follow your nose to Chappell Hill Lavender Farm, where 3,000 lavender bushes thrive in the September sun, their perfume wafting down the farm’s gentle slopes.

On weekends August to October, farm owner Debbie McDowell allows visitors to wander the fields and harvest their own purple Provence lavender. Borrow scissors and a basket from the shop and go snip an armful of the tall spikes (each plant has 100-400 stalks) for a nominal fee. “Strip the bottom leaves off the stem, put the stems in a bundle and hang it upside down in a cool dark place for two weeks,” McDowell advises. “The fragrance lasts so long because the essential oil is in the bud.”

For a lifelike lesson in history, go to the Barrington Living History Farm at the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. The farm represents the homestead of Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. Visitors get to participate in period-specific tasks to learn what life was like in the mid-1800s.

Get an early start and experience picking cotton just as the early settlers did, dragging your burlap sack and stuffing it with white bolls bursting in the tall-cotton fields. “Everyone likes to pick cotton, except those people who used to have to do it,” said Park Ranger Pam Scaggs.

Make time to watch the sturdy Pineywoods oxen pull a plow and respond to simple commands: A flick to the front of their legs makes them back up.

Kids who normally shy away from history get caught up by the old ways evident in the kitchen outbuilding. A shoofly (a cloth fan hung from the ceiling) keeps pests from settling on the fresh-baked cornbread, made with corn grown and ground at the farm. Youngsters can help pick okra, late-season squash or even pears.

Next, swing past the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham. Roam its seven acres of display gardens, featuring not only “rustled” old-fashioned peach, pink and yellow roses, but also perennials, drought-tolerant native plants and butterfly gardens.

A muffuletta sandwich followed by a generous slice of homemade Dutch apple pie at Must Be Heaven restaurant in Brenham helps you re-energize. Nearby, Toubin Park celebrates historic underground cisterns. In the 1870s, Brenham was thought to be the first Texas city to build public cisterns, a response to fighting too many fires with too little water.

Down the road at Round Top Festival Institute, the intricate woodwork of the acoustically perfect performance hall is balanced by the riot of color and scents of acres of themed herb gardens. Festival Hill’s pharmacy garden has long, raised beds devoted to medicinal plants grouped by geographical region—New Zealand, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Americas. Touch the leaves of ginseng, patchouli, turmeric and curry plants for a spice market experience.

Stroll down shaded paths to the herbal tea garden, the fiber-and-dye garden and the lakeside garden. Helpful identifier tags let you match rare and unusual scents to the plants, which include varieties of lavender, salvia and basil. The sunny Cloister Garden recalls a ruined stone church with rosemary trailing over the walls.

Reward yourself with dinner at Royers Round Top Café. The grilled rack of lamb served with a mashed potato casserole along with junk berry pie is one more Washington County feast for the eyes, nose and mouth.

Eileen Mattei is a frequent contributor.