Bittersweet Lilacs

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell

From Ash-Wednesday [1930] T.S. Eliot

The velvety purple of lilac blooms brings up memories of my childhood bedroom in San Francisco, with it’s French provincial furniture, white and gilded, lightly chipped, and winds from the Pacific Ocean billowing the curtains beside my single bed, the bed draped in a soft spread of patterned lilacs.

My granddaughter, taken to Wisconsin when her parents split, has become a sweet, innocent voice heard on the phone. Lilacs bloom in Eau Claire like wild things. When I visited the cottage where she lives, it was spring. I cut an armful of lilacs from the bushes and put them in a big pitcher on the dining room table, the dainty flowers matching my granddaughter and the love in my heart. Perhaps the sentiment seems cloying, like the scent that takes over a room. But, that’s the thing about lilacs.

If you’ve planted Lilacs near your windows and doors, the sweet aroma of spring soon will delight you and maybe memories will be lifted on the breeze, too. These old-fashioned favorites are easy to grow most everywhere, and Monrovia Nurseries says “they occupy a romantic niche in America’s past. Westward-bound pioneers brought cuttings with them and, decades later, their vanished wagon trails and homesteads are still marked by fragrant, old-fashioned treasures” in the form of lilacs.

When Lilacs explode into flower, it happens quickly. The flower spears bend in shapely arches. Because the flowering lasts just a couple weeks, Monrovia gardening experts suggest planting varieties that bloom at different times to extend the pleasure of these fragrant flowering shrubs. Two early-season bloomers from Monrovia are the new Declaration, with extra-large flower panicles of deep reddish-purple, and Pocahontas, one of the hardiest varieties, down to Zone 2. It has deep violet blooms and is actually a parent of the Declaration hybrid.

Growing Conditions

Growing lilacs, (Syringa vulgaris, the Latin name for lilac) is best in full sunshine to ensure the plant will flower reliably. The more shade you give this plant, the fewer blooms you’ll see. If you have a plant that is not flowering, this is normally the reason. The soil is generally not an issue in growing lilacs unless it is very heavy clay (they don’t like that). In the Sacramento Valley where I live now, it’s harder to get good lilac blooms. But, give it great soil and it will still grow well.

Doug Green’s Web site for beginning gardeners offers lilac growing tips and a whole lot more. Doug says the only thing to understand about growing lilacs is that if you feed them heavily, they will grow leaves at the expense of flowers. A shovel or two of compost is all they really require, he says, unlike my nutrient hungry camellias, I might add. So, don’t plant lilacs near fertilized lawns. The plant leafs heavily, but no fragrant flowers.

Common Complaint about Growing Lilacs
“One complaint I often hear is that newly established lilacs won’t bloom,” Doug says. “They will bloom in the container in the nursery because they are root bound. But when you plant them outdoors, they’ll often take up to five years to establish roots and enough top growth so they’re comfortable in throwing a blossom.
“But, when they start, they’ll bloom nonstop with relatively few pests or problems for the next 50 years. The only reason they’ll stop blooming is if you change their sunshine levels with surrounding trees.”

When they decide to bloom, trust me, your lost heart will stiffen and rejoice.

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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