It’s that lilac time of year again. Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is such a humble plant. We had one in our back garden when I was a child and it grew in a place where we emptied the soggy brown leaves from the teapot – and where we emptied the chamber pot in the morning. Sorry to be so frank about it!
For all that, our lilac flourished, but it was a bit of a waste as most of it was hidden from view by the brick outhouse and my mother wouldn’t allow the flowers in the house.
I really didn’t know why she had this superstition that it was unlucky to have lilac in the house – along with may blossom (hawthorn), also in flower at this time of year. Maybe they were the colour of death (funereal arum lilies were also banned), or maybe more practically they harboured stinging insects…
At least that’s what I used to think, but more recently I have seen theories that the perfume of lilac was used to disguise the smell of a dead body in the house (I am thinking “attar of roses” here). More prosaically, Victorian gardeners probably spread the superstition to stop people stealing the lovely and expensive blooms. Cutting the flowers with long stems for a vase also takes off the buds that are needed for the following season’s flowers.
This has been a great Spring for cherry blossom, so it takes a bit of concentration to notice the lilacs – but they are in so many gardens in our city. I used to prefer the dark variety, but now I favour the original “lilac” coloured lilac. It is a very specific shade, not as blue as lavender nor as pink as mauve.
There is also a white sort, which to me is a bit ordinary, a common much darker variety and several more ornate hybrids. The Syringa genus includes more than 20 species and I have another one of these, the miniature Syringa microphylla, in my own garden.
For such a typically British garden plant, the lilac has exotic roots. It is native to South-Eastern Europe and the Near East and its name comes from the Arabic Laylak or the Persian Nylac, both of which mean blue.
The botanical name Syringa comes from the Greek word Syrinx, meaning “a pipe”, as the pithy stems could easily be hollowed out to make pipes – and that’s what they were used for when they were first introduced from Turkey to the Greeks.
The story goes that Ogier Ghiselin De Busecq brought back the first lilacs from Turkey to France in the mid 16th century after visiting the court of Suleiman The Magnificent in Constantinople. The naturalist Pierre Belon called the lilac flower a “fox’s tail” and these “fox tail lilacs” soon spread through Europe.
By the end of the 19th century, during the Franco-Prussian War, Victor Lemoine bred a several “double lilac” or “French lilac” cultivars and today there are many ornamental hybrids.
I have already mentioned the strong fragrance of the flowers, but the wood of the lilac also burns with a sweet perfume.
Lilacs grow well in sun or partial shade and thrive best in a well-drained soil with neutral pH. Certainly ours survived next to the outhouse in the backyard, overshadowed by an elder.
When I was at school I was once given a project to research the American poet Walt Whitman and I must admit I grew to love his work, especially the epic “Leaves of Grass”. I ordered it – a huge tome – from the public library. Maybe you can see where I am going with this… One of his most famous poems is “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”, which is an elegy on the death of his hero, Abraham Lincoln. Here’s how it begins:
When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Read the full text here…
Meanwhile Ivor Novello is a bit of a local hero here in Cardiff and his “We’ll gather lilacs” was one of the romantic lyric tenor melodies my father used to sing around the house. I can still sing it (badly) today…
We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an English lane
Until our hearts have learned to sing again
When you come home once more
And in the evening by the firelight’s glow
You’ll hold me close and never let me go
Your eyes will tell me all I need to know
When you come home once more
When you come home once more…
But of course, for the aforementioned reasons of superstition and gardening practicality, we won’t be gathering any lilacs, but will leave them just where they are, beautiful on the bough…