Lilacs

A splash of purple

A sweet fragrance hangs in the air

Lilacs in full bloom


The Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a native plant to the Balkan Peninsula that is a member of the Oleaceae (Olive) family.(1) This woody, flowering plant that has been heavily cultivated and is now common throughout Europe and North America. The Lilac flowers are very distinct and only bloom for a couple of weeks in the spring. These flowers are usually some version of the color purple and grow in terminal panicles anywhere from 3-7 inches long.  The individual flowers have four lobes that open widely and often curl back. Lilacs prefer cooler climates and need a period of dormancy triggered by the colder weather to produce their fragrant flowers.(2) 

Lilacs, besides being truly beautiful plants to look at, have their roots firmly planted in human history through poetry and literature. 

Beginning in 700 BC, the Greeks introduced the Lilac into the story of Pan.

“It was said that Pan, the god of forests and fields was hopelessly in love with a nymph named Syringa. One day he was pursuing her through a forest and, afraid of his advances, she turned herself into a lilac shrub to disguise herself. To Pan’s surprise, he could not find Syringa, but he did find the shrub. Because a lilac shrub consists of hollow reeds, he cut the reeds and created the first pan pipe.”(3)

Moving forward to the mid 1800s, Walt Whitman wrote about lilacs in his poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Below is part of that poem.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle-and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

You can read the complete poem at Poetry Foundation website(4)

Stepping into current times, we find that Alexandria Peary wrote about Lilacs in her poem Deconstructing New England.  In this poem she writes: 

Toss in some wavy lines, an equal sign, and a squiggle,
then a lilac log, boulders with faces, a few phrases
like rock walls, twin marks from wagon wheels on granite.
The tell-tale lilacs give away the cellar hole:
magnetic lilacs, like nineteenth-century girls
in pinafores and blossom sprays, stationed
beside their no-longer houses. They look about to sing.
Banana curls. Purple ribbons tying their waists.

You can read the rest of this great poem at the Poetry Foundation website. (5)

From this small sampling of writing, it is clear that this somewhat unassuming plant has made its impact on the human species.  There are probably many more myths, stories, and poems out there just waiting to be discovered.  If you have a favorite poem or story about the Lilac, please share in the comment section below. 


Resources:

  1. Wikipedia: Syringa vulgaris
  2. FlowerMag.com: Lilacs
  3. FTD blog: Lilac Meaning and Symbolism
  4. Poetry Foundation: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
  5. Poetry Foundation: Deconstructing New England
  6. Alexandria Peary personal website

17 thoughts on “Lilacs

Add yours

  1. Mmmm. I love lilacs. That was a plant of my childhood – the flowers, the smell, the butterflies… I don’t see many where I live now, but I think about them every spring!

    1. Hi Lizzie, thanks for sharing. It is amazing how many people have a connection to this plant. I am in northeastern part of the US and they are everywhere here.

  2. I love this post, Mark! My hometown is called “the Lilac City” (Spokane,WA) and I often liken myself to a wood nymph since I love being outdoors, elusive and slightly mischievous. 😉

    1. I didn’t know Spokane had that nickname! I bet that means there is a Lilac festival sometime in the early summer. I am glad that you liked the post. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Of course! I also read about an island in Michigan that has a similar situation with a lilac parade and a week of festivities.

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