The scent of spring: Lilacs

When the scent of lilacs fills the air, spring has arrived -- at last! Photo: © 2013 by Susan McKee

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2013 - Lilacs announce their presence with an intoxicating scent to let us know that spring has really arrived. Festivals around the country and overseas showcase the magnificent blooms that range in color from pure white to the deepest purple.

The common lilac — Syringa vulgaris — is native to the Balkan peninsula, but this flowering plant has been a staple of American gardens for a couple of centuries. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s part of the olive family, Oleaceae.

The deciduous shrub arrived in European gardens in the 16th century after visitors admired the blooms in Ottoman gardens, at about the same time as tulip bulbs were spied in what is now Turkey. They leapt the ocean to America during colonial times, and have blossomed ever since.

One of the best places to catch the “show” is Lilacia Park, 150 South Park Avenue, Lombard, Illinois. Just follow the scent to the city park where some 200 different varieties bloom in stages during Lilac Time in Lombard (through May 19) and sometimes beyond (especially when spring has been as cool and wet as this one).

A concurrent Lilac Festival takes place in Rochester, New York’s Highland Park. It also ends May 19, but the blooms likely will continue for a bit.

Spokane, Washington’s Lilac Festival concludes May 18 with a torchlight parade downtown.

“Celebrate Lilacs!” takes place May 25 through June 16 in the Arboretum of the Royal Botanical Gardens, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario, Canada.

Also in Canada (but out West), look for the Fourth Street Lilac Festival in Calgary, Alberta, on May 26.

The Lilac Festival in McLaughlin Gardens, 97 Main Street, South Paris, Maine, is May 24 through 27.

Probably the last lilac festival on the flowering calendar is the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival. It’s set for June 7 through 16, 2013, in northern Michigan. According to local lore, celebrating Mackinac’s lilac collection began in 1949 after a conversation between Evangilene “Ling” Horn and Stella King, who encouraged Bill Chambers to stage a parade on what would be called Lilac Sunday. Fast forward a few decades, and what began as a one-day event has blossomed into a ten day festival.

Another place to see lilacs in the spring is the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, 125 Arborway, Boston, Massachusetts, where lilacs were among the first cultivated plants grown there. You can find remnants of a lilac hedge planted in the mid-19th century by Arboretum benefactor Benjamin Bussey on Bussey Hill. The oldest lilac on record in this collection is a Syringa reticulata (Japanese tree lilac) from 1876. The Arnold Arboretum’s lilac collection has over 375 plants of about 175 different kinds. Many are cultivars, or cultivated varieties, selected for horticultural merits such as flower size and color. Others are the parents of many of today’s hybrids.

Across the pond, there’s a collection of Lemoine Lilacs in Nancy, France. Victor Lemoine is credited with developing 200 lilac cultivars, including double French hybrids and the first Hyacinthiflora lilacs. The ILS has a slideshow of Lemoine lilacs online.

Begun in 1981, the Lola & Milton Flack Lilac Collection in the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln is listed online.

Collections of lilacs also are on bloom at the Hulda Klager Gardens, 115 South Pekin Road, Woodland, Washington, and the Stampe Lilac Garden in Duck Creek Park, 3300 East Locust Street, Davenport, Iowa.

If you’re really, really interested in this flowering shrub, check out the International Lilac Society.

For more ideas on where to see flowers and great gardens, see Road Trips for Gardeners.


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Susan McKee

Susan McKee honed her craft as a general assignment reporter for more than a decade at a major metropolitan daily newspaper before fleeing corporate journalism for the peripatetic life of a freelancer. She's since been to every continent (except Antarctica) and has written about her adventures for dozens of print and online publication on everything from snorkeling off Malaysia to dog-sledding in Norway to exploring classic Chinese gardens in Suzhou. 

 

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