5.13.2009

The Lovely Lilac

When I was a child, each visit to my grandparents' house during the spring months involved at least a few hours playing in the long lilac hedge that grew on the eastern bank of her backyard. My brother and I would always end up amid the heady blooms and crawl up into the open spaces between the branches where we'd dream up imaginary worlds, new characters to inhabit and new stories to act out. Under the dangling purple blossoms, we'd lose ourselves in time and dreams.


In fact, lilacs hold a place of continued discussion - and some discord - in our family. My grandmother loved to grow them and had at least 15 trees in her backyard, plus one large one at the front. She would not, however, cut the blossoms for arrangements indoors, believing her mother's old superstition that having cut lilacs indoors brings bad luck. She never tempted fate and denied herself the beautiful display and sweet fragrance of cut lilacs on the living room coffee table. My father, a great lover of trees, resists the common lilacs the way he resists cologne. He finds their fragrance too heavy and dislikes their looks when they are not in bloom, which is most of the time: "Just a plain, weedy-looking tree," he concludes. While he may have a point about their Plain-Jane looks during most of the growing season, I cannot accept his assessment and I fully intend on having a lilac grove in my future yard.
Lilacs were first brought to North America by the Dutch and American settlers.


The lilac, a deciduous variety of shrub that can also grow to the height of a small tree, blooms throughout the spring, beginning in late April, throughout May and into the early days of June. The foliage of Syringa patula, the most common and most fragrant variety, turns a plum colour in fall. The beauty of lilacs is their hardiness and their easy care instructions. They are hardy from zones 2 to 7, meaning any lilac-lovers who have to suffer through long, cold winters will be rewarded by the arrival of those luscious blossoms come spring. (In fact, in order to bloom prolifically, the lilac requires several months of deep freeze, meaning those who live in tropical or sub-tropical regions have to go without these northern delights.) When the new season's sun begins to warm the earth, the lilac rejoices. They love full sun and rich, well-draining soil with neutral pH levels. The soil they grow in should be evenly moist and new seedlings will require deep watering for the first season of their lives in your garden.

Below are some photos of these virtuosities of spring.
In this bouquet, Martha's arranged a grouping of three different varieties to create a magenta spectrum.
Highland Park, above, in Rochester was developed by philanthropist Barry Ezwagner, who donated the 20-acre space to the county in 1888. Roughly ten years later the first lilacs began to bloom and the first annual Lilac Festival was held at the park, which is populated by dozens of fragrant lilac trees. Every year it attracts thousands of visitors, including one Martha Stewart. I imagine getting drunk on the perfume.... Martha planted an allee of lilac hedges leading to the tennis courts on her Bedford property. The varieties include both common and rare specimens, including several Korean examples.
The lavender shades of Martha's lilacs catch the brilliant springtime sun.

9 comments:

carillon said...

Andrew, sadly I am one of those unfortunates that cannot enjoy lilacs any longer, as here in Phoenix, they will not survive. But I remember them well, as I lived in Minnesota for 40 years, and I remember how they perfumed the whole downstairs when I had a big bouquet on the dining room table.
Carillon

Gail Richards said...

This will no doubt make you laugh but when my brother and I were just youngsters, we moved to a farm on 280 acres in Minnesota. One day we were out playing and exploring our new surroundings when we caught a scent unlike we had ever smelled before. I kid you not, like bloodhounds we sniffed the air in the direction from which we thought it came. Continuing to sniff the air, we walked a little farther across a beautiful meadow...and there they were...huge lilac bushes next to an old, weather-beaten and abandoned farmhouse. Lilacs always bring back that treasured memory.

Katie said...

I went to school in Rochester and lived in an apartment right next to Highland Park for a year. It was so wonderful to throw open the windows and let that intoxicating smell drift into the apartment. I even got to see Martha when she was in town for the festival once. If lilacs weren't already my favorite flower, they would be after spending time in such a beautiful park.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Andrew, for that article celebrating one of my favorite flowers! But I didn't know about the superstition that having them in your house brought bad luck! I hope there's no truth to that, as I've always had an arrangement or two in the house when they are in season.

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

That's an old, old superstition. I'm not sure what the origins of it are. I just know that my Scottish great grandmother NEVER had lilacs indoors, which is the tradition my grandmother carried on. It's probably an old Gaelic myth or something... I think you'll be fine! :-)

ANDREW RITCHIE said...

Carillon, Gail and Katie, thank you all for sharing your lilac-scented stories with us! I think lilac is one of the sweetest scents out there.

Jim said...

I went last year to Lilac Fest and bought the perfume to get the free Martha Stewart lilac. I didn't think it would survive the winter since the cutting was only 3 inches long. It did and produced flowers this year. It is like an asian variety.

SmartLIpo said...

The soil they grow in should be evenly moist and new seedlings will require deep watering for the first season of their lives in your garden.

SmartLIpo said...

One day we were out playing and exploring our new surroundings when we caught a scent unlike we had ever smelled before.It did and produced flowers this year. It is like an asian variety.