Our old white farmhouse was surrounded by lilac bushes, which were often out in time for Mother’s Day, an occasion we always celebrated on the farm with a big family meal which my mother prepared. Looking back, it seems strange we made her cook on Mother’s Day, but then my grandmother always came over, so she probably considered it her daughterly duty, and was happy having all her kids home, even if it did mean we ended up doing two hours of dishes by hand in the days before the dishwasher. Out would come the lace tablecloth and the good china, and the long farm table, dating from 1870, would be extended to its maximum length, with later another set up in the kitchen for the ever-growing collection of grandchildren. Of course, this was in the days before going out for brunch became popular, which we tried occasionally but which was often a disappointment, restaurants always being so busy that day, and the kids not being able to play outside, where the lawn and orchard would be sunny with dandelions.
Those old farm lilacs were common in the countryside, with almost every farmhouse (which back then only came in two types, white clapboard or yellow brick), sporting a bush or two. But ours were special, as they surrounded the house on three sides. If it was a nice day with a south breeze and the windows open, the smell was heavenly. The fragrance would waft in through the kitchen and living room windows, and also the upstairs bedrooms, as the bushes were quite tall.
We also picked some to bring inside and put in vases, something I still do to this day. Even when I was older, I would always take a bouquet or two home, wrapped up in tinfoil, to put on the kitchen counter.
After my father passed away and my mother moved into town, my sister brought her two lilac bushes as a house warming present. They lasted about fifteen years and then had to be cut down. I planted two lilac bushes in the corner of my yard ten years ago, and they are now starting to look spindly. One bush smells like what I remember, the other does not. Of course, they are late this year, like everything else, so these are pictures from last year.
There are over 2000 varieties of lilacs, according to the International Lilac Society, in a wide range of colors, sizes and blooms. Common lilacs generally prefer cold winters, well drained soil and full sun. They are low maintenance and require little watering, once established – my kind of plant!
My neighbor has the darker purple kind, which does not smell nearly as nice, but then maybe I’m just being nostalgic.
All lilacs are lovely, (except those four foot Korean Dwarfs, my Miss Kim never bloomed once), but it is the old-fashioned kind I love the most. While the nursery sold me the variety known as “common lilac” they certainly don’t seem as hardy as those old farm lilacs, which must have been heirloom stock, as they were still going strong at eighty years plus. (Some varieties only last 10 to 15 years.) The “common lilac” has the largest and longest blooms and the most fragrant flowers and can grow up to twenty feet. Ours would be pruned back once in awhile when they got too tall, (only prune immediately after the spring bloom), but they were always leafy and full, and the branches made excellent spears for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a backyard bonfire.
I was told my grandmother planted them sometime in the 1920’s when she was newly married, after the house was raised, a basement put under it and a veranda added. She also planted a row of white spirea bushes beside them, so it formed a little alcove. I would sometimes take a book or magazine there and sit and read, sheltered from the wind, stopping once in awhile just to breathe in the scent. Here’s the view, looking out.
After my mother moved, the house and the lilacs were bulldozed down to make room for more acreage – a sad fate after so many years of providing beauty. I wish I had thought to take a cutting or two, but I was busy with life and not much interested in gardening then.
Last fall, I bought two Bloomerang Lilacs on sale, a variety new to me, but then I’m always behind on the latest gardening trends. (Here’s a link to more info.) They are similar to the popular Bloom Again Hydrangeas, and will rebloom in the summer and fall after a short rest. They will only grow to 5 feet, making them more like a shrub than a tree. Mine seem to have survived the winter nicely and even have buds on them. I like the idea of having lilacs for three seasons, as a week or two in May seems much too short.
If you’re ever in northern Michigan in early June, check out the famous Mackinac Island Lilac Festival (link – added to bucket list). No cars are allowed on the island, but you can cross on the ferry and stay at the Grand Hotel (where Somewhere in Time was filmed) and tour via bike or horse drawn carriage – now that really is going back in time. Visiting this lilac paradise is a nice way to welcome summer after a cold and snowy winter. Here are a few pictures from Victoria Magazine, May 2000 issue.
Happy Mother’s Day!