Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Lilacs in me because I am New England..."

If I could only know one flower on this Earth it would be the lilac. The purplish indigo kind, the most fragrant of their varieties, of which there are many. Lilacs were brought to this country from Asia in the mid 1700s. In New Hampshire the lilacs bloom for about a week or so in late May, sometimes earlier now with the often warmer winter. They remind me of the end of the college year when I'd return to our farm for the summer and they'd be blooming in abundance around the barn. They are also a nostalgic flower for me because they were out at the time of year when I first started dating my future husband and they have always grown around his family home, eventually ours together.

You could always count on lilacs by Memorial Day in our part of New Hampshire and will see hedges of them along roadsides and around old farmhouses. Sometimes you can identify a foundation of a former house by the lilacs around it. I have always wanted a longer lilac season. This year, because they are blooming in Kentucky in late April and will be blooming in New England when we return in May for a time, I will.


When we came to Kentucky I did not think I would see one in spring again. But I was wrong. There are two bushes in our yard, planted by Miss Lillian who was an excellent gardener. They aren't as prolific in this region but they like it if planted here.

Yesterday our largest bush was alive with yellow swallowtail butterflies. I have never seen this before back in New Hampshire and the colors of the yellow wings, the deep blue and clear sky and the detail of the purplish indigo blossoms was as intoxicating as their fragrance.

Understandably, lilacs have been the subject of some famous American poets. Here is a stanza from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Walt Whitman (for the complete poem, click here):

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-washed palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle -and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-coloured blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

Emily Dickinson also mentions lilacs, her home in Amherst, Massachusetts likely surrounded by them as most New England home sites are, in this from 342:

The Lilacs — bending many a year —
Will sway with purple load —
The Bees — will not despise the tune —
Their forefathers have hummed.

One of my favorite poems is called simply Lilacs by Amy Lowell. Like Whitman's poem it is a long ode, and has similarities to his style, but it is not quite as epic. It was included in her Pulitzer prize-winning book of poetry that she was awarded, posthumously, in 1926. I like this stanza especially (for the complete poem, click here):

Lilacs,
False blue,
White
Purple,
Colour of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilacs in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of 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.


3 comments:

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Is it true they used to plant lilacs near the outhouse for the masking properties of its perfume? (And if so, what did they do the other 50 weeks of the year??) At any rate, we DO have lilacs planted next to our outhouse. It still functions, and when we have large outdoor parties, we insist people use it--spiders or no. Of course, it also contains a laugh: we installed an old urinal in it, and signed it like Duchamp: R. Mutt.

Am I the only one who's noticed that lilacs seem to be on a biennial schedule? I find that on alternate years, the blooms are much more profuse.

Catherine Seiberling Pond said...

I have heard this also...but what about those other 52 weeks! I want an old outhouse or at least a facsimile. There are plenty around here, many still used (which would be so illegal back in NH).

We have a marvelous old plant called "Golden Glow". I got it at Perennial Pleasures way up in Hardwick, VT. I'm not sure they're even still open but they also do/did mail order. It is like a perennial sunflower, perhaps in the rudbeckia family? It grows tall, blooms in late August/September and the old-timers say it was often planted by "back houses". But no fragrance so perhaps just for the color!

I wonder if lilacs bloomed all summer, would we appreciate them as much?

Hen Pantry said...

Catherine, I'm still browsing through your many wonderful posts and came across this one about lilacs. Just a little note to say that the man who wrote the big lilac book (can't remember the name but considered the best) grew up in our house. His name was Fr. John Fiala, a Catholic priest.

Can you believe when we moved here there was not a lilac on the place and Fr.Fiala was still living. We've planted several since. One day an old man stopped here and said he used to live here and there was a yellow lilac in the yard and he wondered if it was still here. It wasn't. This year I'm going to finally find one.

Hen Pantry