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Mike Lunsford

April 2, 2012

MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d…’

Had white lace curtains been hanging in the west window of my cabin, I would have had a perfect Wyeth painting to watch last Thursday. A gentle breeze was wafting through my screens, and the sunlight of a warm late March day was fractured by the window sill as it poured onto my legs and feet. I could catch the scent of lilacs as it was carried in by that wind, and it and the subtle melody of the chimes that hang just outside made me as lazy as an old cat.

We have not always had lilacs in our yard, and we have never had them in bloom as early as they are now. For years, I cultivated a lilac bush near the mouth of our driveway, trimming and fertilizing and encouraging it to produce a crop of fragrant blooms, but it never did. There is not enough sunlight in the spot for which I was determined to see that bush prosper, and finally, after years of stubbornly trying to make it do that which it couldn’t, I moved a few shoots of it closer to the house, into one of the few sunny spots I have in my yard. We have been rewarded this spring.

My stubbornness was not the only thing at fault, however. I learned just this year that lilacs do not like to grow near black walnut trees, that the latter produce a chemical called “juglone” — known by mad scientists as 5-hydroxy-1,4-naphthalenedione — and flowering shrubs, like lilacs and hydrangeas, don’t care for the stuff at all. In fact, they most often do one of two things when they happen to be situated near walnuts: They either die, or renounce their blooms in protest. Since our lilac bush sat within 20 feet or so of not one, but two walnut trees (one of which is now just a stump), it had several reasons to snub us.

A few days ago, as Joanie and I were headed along the road in our walking shoes to see what we could see, we met Julia Hickman and her shiny Buick as they pulled into our neighbor’s drive. Birch Bailey, who lives across the fence from us — he was named after his grandfather rather than a tree or a senator — has five huge lilac bushes growing in his yard. It has probably been his blooms that we have been sniffing over our way, since his is a bumper crop this spring. Julia thought she’d snip a few to take home. She passed us a few minutes later in a whirl of dust, her lilac clippings tucked away on her front seat.

The lilac — scientific name syringa vulgaris — was first cultivated in Eastern Europe. The name — originally, nilak — is Persian and means “bluish.” Our name for the plant is a Spanish variant. Lilacs are part of the olive family, and some can grow as tall as 30 feet. There are two dozen species of shrubs and trees that are called lilacs, and there are perhaps up to a 1,000 varieties of them.

As is most often the case when I begin a commentary on something of which I know practically nothing, I have begun to read a bit about lilacs, and I have been surprised with what I’ve found. For instance, according to one source, lilacs are edible, although I am not advocating such a thing. Lilacs can be crystallized and candied for cookies, pies and cakes, and they can be added to salads, too. One recipe calls for fresh lilac blossoms to be mixed with honey and yogurt for an “elegant” dessert, and I have heard that lilac leaves can be brewed into a tea. I think I’d rather just smell them…

Lilac wood is also put to work, primarily as knife handles and musical instruments (the Greek word syrinx, from which syringa comes, means pipe or flute). Like its blooms (although some lilacs are white), the heartwood of the lilac has a slightly purple grain, and large enough trunks have been turned into bowls and walking sticks.

But, of course, it is the lilac’s fragrance that sets it apart. Lilac oil is commonly used in commercial perfumes, and I have read that some people press their own lilacs to scent candles, and that lilac petals can be added directly to warm bath water for their aromatic properties. On a more nauseating note, American colonists supposedly used lilacs medicinally, often to treat intestinal worms and other parasites.

My mother loved lilacs, and she often clipped them as the weather turned warm in April. I’d come in from school to see a sprig or two sitting on our kitchen table in a canning jar, but, as far as I knew, she never used them for anything besides that simple decoration. She would, of course, be surprised to see so many lilacs so soon this spring.

It is, of course, more than just the lilacs that are blooming earlier and better, but for us, a southerly breeze has made the lilacs more obvious. I read a few weeks ago that if global warming continues unchecked, the Tidal Basin cherry blossoms we are so proud of in Washington, D.C., will be on display a full month earlier than tradition and the calendar say they are supposed to be, in another half-century or so. Our crabapples and forsythias and redbuds and dogwoods are having at it as I write this. So are the Sweet William and violets and lunaria, and my irises should be open in the next few days. It is usually midway through mushrooming season before we see much color from them, but everything these days seems to be in a hurry. Why should our trees and bushes have to wait?

My favorite reference to lilacs comes from Walt Whitman. Not long after the great poet’s hero, Abraham Lincoln, was murdered in mid-April 1865, Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” It is a complicated poem — three poems, really — and Whitman wrote it at a time when his own grief was symbolic of a national mourning for the martyred president.

Yet, one stanza from his poem speaks to us about the beauty of lilacs. It can surely stand alone in a spring when they are making their presence known so well. He wrote:

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