A Mainer pays tribute to lilacs’ enduring resilience.
- By: Ken Textor
Trimming lilacs is an old-fashioned chore, one which few gardeners I know either understand or bother to undertake these days. And to tell the truth, I might skip this annual task, too, if our lilacs weren’t so personal to us. But the job has become a sort of seasonal celebration for me — I wouldn’t miss it any more than turkey for Thanksgiving or fireworks on the Fourth of July.
The task begins about the second week of June. At some point, I find myself perched atop our rickety, old wooden step ladder, staring up at a bright blue sky framed by deep green lilac leaves. Amid all this spectacular color are the rapidly browning dead lilac blossoms, which are the object of my trimming. But I don’t trim them because their mushy, bluish-brown colors offend me. Faith and hope are my primary motivators, as I suspect they always have been with these particular lilacs.
Our lilacs, you see, weren’t purchased at the local gardening center. Back in 1986, we were building our house just a little inland from the shores of the lower Kennebec River. Since we were on a fairly tight budget, we did all the construction work ourselves. And when it came to the landscaping portion of the building budget, the financial allotment was slightly north of nothing.
Fortunately, though, we built on land that was settled more than three hundred years ago. And even though those early settlers’ fields, farms, and even homes have long since disappeared, some presents from the past are still around, including battered stone walls, rugged woods roads, and a few struggling fields.
Thus it came as only a small surprise when, during a walk in the woods, I found a fading patch of lilacs not far from our new house. Under the shade of some sizable oaks and pines, they were struggling to survive a few yards away from an old, fieldstone cellar hole that was barely visible amid the brambles, fallen leaves, and bittersweet. Finding those lilacs felt like winning a small lottery.
As most gardeners know, lilacs are not indigenous to Maine, or any other place in North America. In fact, their original home was amid the heights of the imposing Balkan mountains, a land of bitter strife and striking secret beauty in southeastern Europe. Some time in the 1500s, lilac-loving traders from Bulgaria, Turkey, and elsewhere began spreading the plant’s fragrance and striking blooms westward. By the 1600s, France and England had become hotbeds of lilac cultivation.
When I found my forgotten lilacs, they immediately garnered an extra measure of my respect, not only for their stamina but also for their durability.
No one knows exactly when the first lilacs were transported from Europe to the New World. But I think the people who took the time to think of gardening while at the same time facing numerous questions of just basic survival in a hostile world must have been special folks. Just to imagine you could keep the plants alive aboard a cold, saltwater-soaked ship for a six to twelve-week voyage shows a special kind of faith, in both yourself and your cultivar. And then plant them and have them survive? Amazing.
In any case, my cellar hole probably dated back to the 1700s and thus the lilacs, too. In near-perpetual shade in recent decades, only a few small, stunted blossoms showed. But their sweet scent was undaunted and one whiff marked them for a high-priority transplanting back to the sunshine of the yard around our new home.
Four saplings no taller than a bar stool were thus planted just outside our windows on the north, east, south, and west sides of the house. To our rocky, thin, miserable soil we added some well-aged manure. And every year, we add ashes from the woodstove, in much the same tradition as lilac enthusiasts have for hundreds of years.
Beyond that, the only annual attention we pay to the lilacs is the trimming process. To remove old blossoms encourages a more lush bloom the next year and vigorous overall growth. Without trimming, however, lilacs bloom every year anyway, and I suspect that’s why most people don’t bother with trimming.
But our plan back in 1986 was to grow our lilacs big and lush enough to provide a small island of lilac scent for a week or two every year. Then, on certain days in late May or early June, no matter which windows are open, the scent of lilacs drifts in and reminds us of those first brave Mainers and their penchant for a little color and perfume. As our predecessors did, we get far more out of our trimming chores than we put in.
- By: Ken Textor