I have had lilacs a bit on the brain lately. They are one of my favorite flowering bushes, and I have been waiting for mine to bloom. To me, they are a true indicator that summer is not far away.
This past weekend caused me to think about them even more. It all started when most of us siblings were gathered at my mom’s house to spend the day doing spring yard work. At one point, I was standing next to my mom while she talked about two smaller lilac bushes in the side yard. She said one of them was a cutting from a bush my father’s mother owned. Since my mom’s plant has probably been there for close to fifty years, it made me wonder just how old the original bush might be.
And I wish I could recall what she said about the origins of the second bush, because that is one tough plant! My mom wanted a dead pine tree in her yard cut down, and the only safe place my husband had to drop the tree was right over that lilac bush. Yet even though that poor bush was smashed by a huge tree, as soon as the tree sections were removed, that bush popped right back up like it was never touched. Amazing!
All of this made me a bit curious about the lilacs growing next to so many old houses. This prompted a bit of quick research on my part – something I am never reluctant to do. I discovered that lilacs are not native to North America, and were brought here by European settlers. There was a tradition of planting a lilac bush by the front door. However, the lilacs the Europeans brought were not native to most of their home countries, either. Lilacs originated in the Balkans, but made it to the rest of Europe in the 1500s by a long route through Istanbul. They were carried back from Istanbul to Austria by travelers on the silk route.
Since the very earliest settlers in North America were trying to simply survive in a harsh new climate, lilacs didn’t make it onto west-bound ships from Europe until the mid-1700’s. But the many-flowered stems have quietly been a part of our history ever since. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both made notes about the lilacs in their gardens. The longest living lilacs in North America are thought to have been planted around 1750 in New Hampshire. Imagine having garden plants which are over 250 years old! Lilacs prefer a cooler climate, which is why you will often find them in New England and the Midwest and also in Canada, which has a long history of growing lilacs and creating new hybrids.
All of this interesting background has helped me reach a conclusion. Once my husband and I are settled in our new house, I will make sure there is a lilac planted by the front door. After all, I don’t want to break with tradition. Perhaps, decades from now, people will be wondering who planted it.
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