Horticulture Highlight: Syringa vulgaris
… But now, in spring, the buds,
flock our trees. Ten million exquisite buds
tiny and loud, flaring their petalled wings,
bellowing from ashen branches vibrant
keys, the chords of spring’s triumph…
The song is drink, is color. Come. Now. Taste.
With our vibrant orchestra of flora now coming into radiant play perhaps no landscape plant evokes more nostalgia toward spring than the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris. The genus Syringa is comprised of approximately two-dozen shrub and small-tree species. These are all native to Asia or southeastern Europe and are members of the olive family (Oleaceae).
Etymologically Syringa is derived from the Greek word syrinx meaning “hollow stem.” Syrinx in mythology was a lovely water nymph of Arcadia, pursued by the amorous god Pan. Granted escape at a river’s edge from higher deities she was turned into hollow water reeds. Pan then fashioned his musical flute from these reeds and henceforth was seldom seen without it. Coincidentally syrinx is the name of the vocal organ unique to birds which produces their ethereal songs.
The common lilac is a shrub from 8-15 (sometimes 20)-feet tall with four to six-inch leaves that have a cordate shape at their base and a pointed apex. While the stems are not truly hollow they do contain soft pith that may be easily removed to create a hollow pipe. The individual tube-shaped flowers occur massed together on a six to ten-inch long panicle.
While many contemporary horticulturists are ready to cite this plant’s ornamental limitations; one-season interest, a leggy habit in maturity, powdery mildew on leaves in late summer, etc., the distinctively fragrant, lilac-hued flowers remain beloved by multiple generations. Our forefathers brought the common lilac with them to the American colonies and eventually even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among countless others, documented planting these lilacs. Some of the oldest recorded lilacs in New England, planted in 1750, may still be found at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, NH.
Often this was a favorite flower of our grandmother’s grandmother. Throughout New England descendants of this common lilac can still be found growing ubiquitously. In addition there are now over two-thousand documented forms of this one Syringa species with lilac, purple, pink, white, yellow and blue colors, single and double-flowered and many in between characteristics. Poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), Bellwort Path, Lot 3401, expresses their quintessential occurrences in her poem titled “Lilacs:”
Colour of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years
New Hampshire knows you,
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches
to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of the gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to
and fro on the road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England.
There are well over one-hundred lilacs of several different species planted at Mount Auburn and we remind you to stop and smell the flowers on your next visit here.
*This Horticulture Highlight was originally published in the May 2010 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter.