Why stop to smell the roses when you can get a lungful of lilacs?
Late spring lilacs light up our lives and take our breath away with their beauty and sweet scent. English poet and novelist Jean Ingelow rightly observed “The lilac spread Odorous essence.”
The British were not the only ones to enjoy these shrubs, nor were they the first. Lilacs originally hailed from Asia and Eastern Europe and were brought west in the mid 1500s.
The next emigration of these flowers occurred when colonial settlers brought lilacs to this country in the 18th century. Planting them right next to their homes was the fashion and, in some places, the shrub has even outlasted the house.
The reason for the lilac’s close proximity to residences is clear, as explained by American novelist and magazine editor Anna S. Stevens:
“I am thinking of the lilac trees,
That shook their purple plumes,
And when the sash was open,
Shed fragrance through the room.”
Lilacs, oddly enough, are in the olive family and in the genus Syringa, which comes from the root syrinx, meaning hollow tube or pipe, and refers to the hollow pith of the plant that has been used to make pipes or flutes.
Another Syringa reference hails from Greek mythology. Syringa was a nymph that captivated Pan. He chased her though the forest and she, fearing capture, escaped by turning herself into the aromatic bush. Pan is often seen with a flute taken from his bushy botanical love.
Notwithstanding the beautiful nymph, a love of lilacs is almost universal. Many festivals are held throughout the country celebrating this fragrant and unforgettable flower. The closest to us occurs at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. Lilac Sunday is the second Sunday in May and often draws a crowd to see its collection of over 380 lilac plants in 176 varieties. Better yet, bring lunch because Lilac Sunday is the only day of the year that picnicking is allowed at the Arboretum!
Others lilac lovers included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both grew them in their gardens. Since lilac bushes can live for hundreds of years, we might be able to enjoy some of those historic plants. Modern aficionados can join the International Lilac Society, whose motto, “A lilac in every garden . . . the world over” seeks nothing less than planetary domination!
Keep lilacs healthy and blooming and Society members happy by not pruning these shrubs. Lilacs flower on old wood, so very little fuss is needed to bring out their best.
These blooming beauties are also known to bring out our best. Lilacs are associated with the emotions of love and youthful innocence. The eighth year of marriage is symbolized and celebrated with lilacs.
My love affair with lilacs includes the opportunities for its consumption. The flowers are edible and can be used to infuse water (think lilac-flavored lemonade) or syrup, make wine, jelly, sorbet, or even add to muffins. Though a bit pungent, their flowery flavor adds a purple, pink or white punch to salads too!
So, a bouquet for the eyes, a delight for the nose, and a feast for the mouth is what is provided by this pleasantly purple or wonderfully white, floral sensation.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.