Down East 2013 ©
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.