Wednesday Weed – Lilac

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Dear Readers, you might remember that I spent some of my formative years working in a night shelter for homeless people in Dundee. Sunday evenings there were typically quiet, and the men often spent them sitting in the kitchen and listening to the radio. There were two songs which many of them found particularly affecting. One was ‘The Lady in Red‘ by Chris de Burgh,  which would often end with someone surreptitiously wiping their eyes, lost in memories of happier days. But the one that would really get everybody going was ‘Lilac Wine’, originally by Nina Simone but recorded by Elkie Brooks in the ’90’s. Was there ever a better song about the melancholy drinker? Everything from her wavering notes to her tear-filled eyes encapsulates the way that alcohol both distorts thinking and intensifies emotion. However, I do wonder if she has a different lilac tree from mine, as even on a good day I would not characterise the scent as ‘heady’, maybe because my plant flowers in April when the rain and the wind (and the occasional snow) make sitting outside a heroic endeavour. Maybe it’s also because my lilac is white, rather than the usual eponymous lilac? Do tell me of your lilac experiences, especially if they involve ‘feeling unsteady’ and seeing things that aren’t actually there.

My venerable lilac tree has grown to prodigious proportions. When I first moved into the house, all the flowers were at the top, some six feet above my head, and their fragrance was mainly enjoyed by passing starlings. Over the past few years I have been pruning out the old wood in an attempt to renovate the plant, and it seems to be working – this year I had flowers at eye-level for the first time in years. I cut a small bunch, put them in a glass jar and popped them down on my writing desk. For a while I just inhaled and admired them, until a moving pea attracted my attention. And when I took my glasses off for a better look, I saw a tiny spider, seemingly made out of green glass.

A cucumber spider (Arienella curcubita)

My garden wildlife book tells me that this is a cucumber spider, and I could not have been more surprised if I’d found out that it was a wildebeest. All my pruning and hacking suddenly seemed worthwhile, because if the lilac blossoms had still been at the top of the ‘tree’ I’d never have cut them.

Lilac has been in the UK since at least the sixteenth century, and is thought to have been brought here not from the Balkans, where it grows wild, but from the courts of the Ottomans. It didn’t reach North America until the eighteenth century, but has become so naturalized there that it is the state flower of New Hampshire. You can occasionally find lilac growing wild in the UK too, but generally close to human habitation. Indeed, a lone lilac bush can often be the first indication that there was once a garden on the site.

Now, to loop back to Elkie Brooks, I found myself wondering if lilac was much used as a culinary ingredient (after all, the plant is a member of the Oleaceae or olive family). I wandered out to the garden to munch on a flower, and found it a rather under-whelming experience – it was quite astringent (i.e. it dries up the saliva), floral, and a bit ‘green’, almost salady. My hunting through the internet revealed a recipe for lilac syrup on The Practical Herbalist, and from here I found a recipe for actual Lilac Wine. The latter website also has a link to all kinds of other ‘country’ wines, including rhubarb, beetroot and something enticing called ‘scuppernong’ wine. I am old enough to remember the days when any kind of fruit or vegetable was fair game for a spell of vinification. My Uncle Roy’s parsnip wine would knock your head off.

Medicinally, lilac was believed to be an ‘anti-periodic’ – that is, it could help to treat diseases such as malaria which occur cyclically. It has also been used to treat fever. In North America, the Iroquois people used it to treat sores.

Lilac (the white variety in particular) is yet another of those plants which have a reputation for bringing bad luck if brought into the house  – I have listed so many of these lately that it’s a wonder that there are any bouquets at all! A five-petalled lilac flower is also thought to be a bad omen, except in some accounts where it appears to be lucky, so my advice is, if in doubt, go for the happier interpretation. Lilac was thought to bring protection against evil if planted at the corners of a house, and I have always thought of it as a happy plant, one of the earlier signs that summer is on its way.

On the Plant Lives website, Sue Eland records a legend about the origin of the lilac in the UK:

According to legend its introduction to the British Isles is owed to a falcon that dropped the
seed in an old lady’s garden in Scotland. The bush grew without flowering until the day
when a passing prince stopped to admire it and a purple plume from his headdress
dropped into it. Thenceforth the bush bore purple flowers and the purple shrub brought
such joy to a young local girl that when she died on the eve of her marriage a cutting was
planted on her grave. This cutting flourished and eventually grew into a bush that bore
white flowers.

 

Maybe as a result of this story, wearing white lilac is said to mean that you will never marry.

During the 19th century there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for the complicated, abundant flowers of the lilac. Impressionists were particularly enamoured, and they seem to have been trying to outdo one another in their depictions. I particularly like the Manet one, but maybe that’s because the flowers are so recognisably like the ones in my garden. I am also very partial to the hexagonal glass vase.

Bouquet of Lilacs by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1875-80 (Public Domain)

Lilacs in the Sun by Claude Monet, 1872 (Public Domain)

Lilacs in a Vase by Edouard Manet c.1882 (Public Domain)

And finally, here is a poem by the American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925). This speaks to me, newly returned from North America, and it helps to settle in my mind the conundrum of why the lilac, a flower from Europe, has so intertwined itself in the American imagination that it is the state flower of the Granite state, the ‘Live Free or Die’ state of New Hampshire. This work takes my breath away. I hope you enjoy it too. Read it slowly, preferably with a cup of tea.

‘Lilacs’ by Amy Lowell

Lilacs,
False blue,
White,
Purple,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
Lilacs,
False blue,
White,
Purple,
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
And Massachusetts
And Vermont.
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And apple-blossoms,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
Lilacs,
False blue,
White,
Purple,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.

 

9 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Lilac

  1. Fran and Bobby Freelove

    Although i have a couple of Lilac trees in the garden, one of them being Charles Joly, out late mother’s favourite, we both prefer the miniature lilac, Syringa Microphylla ‘Superba’. If you haven’t room for a large lilac we can highly recommend one of these, or in my case i have ‘accumulated’ five. Although they tend to say there height is up to 5-6ft mine have never reached much more than a metre. One i’ve had in a stone sink for almost 40 years and it never fails year after year, and the scent is absolutely amazing, ideal if you only have room for pots.

    Reply
      1. Fran and Bobby Freelove

        I have them in all different aspects, one being in shade for most of the day and it’s absolutely fine and flowers just the same. You really don’t have to do anything to them they’re so easy.

  2. tonytomeo

    The old fashioned straight species of Syringa vulgaris will always be my favorite. My mother grew it when I was a kid because her mother and grandmothers grew it. People from the Midwest love it. (There were many Okies here back then.) When I grew lilacs in the 1990s, we grew the French hybrids both because of the variety of color, but also because they did not need as much chill as the straight species. I was annoyed because I know that the straight species grows just fine here, but had to grow what the nurseries wanted to sell. the French hybrids were not as good as they were supposed to be, and not as vigorous as the straight species. Their only advantage was their range of color. I do happen to like white, but still prefer the traditional lilac color. I will grow both again.

    Reply
      1. tonytomeo

        I do not remember how many cultivars we grew, but the straight species was not one of them. We happened to have a single specimen in the arboretum, but none in production.

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