I grew up in a house with very large yard that I would run, skip, monkey bar, build forts, cartwheel, and even ride horses through. I had so many imaginary adventures in that yard. I wasn’t one for stopping to smell the roses when I was young, but I’d always pause as I passed by the tall lilac bush. I’d pull a pliant branch down until the grape bunch-shaped flowers tickled my nose. I can close my eyes in winter, even now, and still smell the sweet, purple, spring blooms of my childhood home in my memories. It was a wonderful smell.
Maybe that is why I love lilacs so much. They smell of home. The home of my youth. A simple place I lived with my parents, sisters, cats, dogs, legos, barbies, and horses. So much has changed since then, but that smell still takes me back someplace safe where my imagination ran free.
I cried when I found out my dad was selling the house. I was living in the city at the time and the thought of never being able to go back to visit those memories hurt my heart. On one of my last visits before the house sold, my dad suggested that I take a clipping of the lilac. It was a somewhat brutal and messy process of just tugging the shoot until it broke away from the parent species. I dug below the surface first so I’d be sure to get enough roots with the shoot. I then wrapped a wet paper towel around the exposed roots and took my lilac babies back to Seattle.
That was the first time I propagated a lilac. The bush I took it from was actually propagated from my great-grandmother’s lilac, which I remember visiting in her yard when I was young. I have no idea where my grandmother got her lilac from. Maybe it was native to her yard.
A quick Google search of native lilacs indicate that they come from Eastern Europe and temperate Asia. My great-Grandmother was Scandinavian so I suppose where hers came from will remain a mystery to me. However, I did discover (via distracted Googling) that there is some mythology associated with lilacs.
Syringa, the scientific name for lilac, is derived from the Greek word for Syrinx. Syrinx was a beautiful nymph who was at her local watering hole just minding her own business. One day a pushy, god of the forest and fields, named Pan showed up, took one look at Syrinx and tried to make a move. She turned him down, but he didn’t want to take no for an answer so she changed into a lilac or a reed (depends on the story) to avoid him. She basically gave Pan the mythological wrong phone number. He then pouted and started making music with a flute made of reeds. Typical.
As John Oliver would say, “moving on.”
I was living in a little studio apartment with a disproportionately large deck dotted with a few potted plants. I stuck my lilac starts into the soil of a newly acquired pot with much skepticism. Then I forgot about them for a bit. I can’t remember what season it was, but I’m guessing not summer because the little guys survived living off the water of the sky.
My lilacs leafed out and grew quickly. They even produced new shoots the following spring. Flowers eluded me though. And the spring after that? Still no purple floral blooms. The lilac may have been the first plant I ever researched. Three to seven years to bloom, I read. Unfortunately, they tend to outgrow their pots and my deck by then.
I put my lilac up for adoption after taking a new start. I had to start over. This process occurred once more before I had a yard my lilac could call home. I believe it was the second year of permanent residence that my second generation (from my start) lilac decided to gift me with fragrant blooms. Turns out to be about 5 years to bloom for my species. I was ridiculously happy. So many years after that first start and I finally had blooms of my own. I was home again.
I didn’t stop propagating though. I used my newly planted old lilac to propagate new lilacs starts for family and friends too. I like knowing that that lilacs in loved ones’ planters and yards are connected to mine. It’s like when someone gives you that baggy goo of friendship bread only it’s not gross and I make sure the offer is accepted first. It’s a lilac, not a damn chain letter. Real friends give you fully baked bread or fully functioning (besides the flowers) plants anyway.
The following year I made the mistake of feeding my lilac plant food made for azaleas. It was a rookie mistake that I was really too good for at that point. Too much nitrogen and so no blooms for me. Sad! I’d just have to wait until the next spring, but that was not meant to be.
I moved to a new house the next year so my bloom clock started over once again. I brought a lilac I had started from the one I planted at the previous house. It was already a couple years old and about 3 feet high. Out of habit, I propagated that one straight away and stuck it in a pot. That little one I took with me after I moved out a little less than a year later after my marriage was over.
My hardy new little lilac has survived my shaded veranda through a freeze and snow storm and is now showing buds for the upcoming spring. Not flower buds. That’s still a few years away. Leaf buds.
Lilacs are hardy and thrive here in my experience. They look ugly and dead in the late fall and early winter. They’re not dead though. Perhaps a bit unsightly, but not unlike a cocoon waiting to unleash a butterfly. It will be a few years until I see a lilac butterfly again, but when I do, I won’t feed it nitrogen! Perhaps by then it will trade its planter for a garden.
Until then, I’ll watch my little lilac grow and use my imagination to smell the blooms of my past.