When I was a kid in North Dakota, I knew spring had really arrived when the substantial lilacs in our yard bloomed. That far north, the lilac bloom came in May some years and in June others. This year, at my farm in Kansas, the lilac bloom started the night before last – I noticed that familiar scent when passing my only lilac bush on the way in from feeding the lambs. This morning, about half of the clustered flower buds had burst. I figure it will be another day or so before the lilacs bloom full force – I hope the predicted rain tomorrow doesn’t destroy the flowers.
My favorite lilacs are all shrubs in the genus Syringa that belong to the species vulagaris – the plain old ordinary common lilac. I so enjoy this deciduous plant because it thrives in the same harsh environments of my childhood and adolescence where it shaded me in summer, its arching under story provided endless opportunity for creating secret forts, and its beautiful flowers offered springtime cheer. My Osage County farm has but a single mature lilac hedge that hides the propane tank from view. I’ve transplanted a number of suckers but they have not yet matured.
Non-hybrid common lilacs bloom in a variety of colors. Some are deep lavender, others are purplish pink and still others are white. The shrub as we know it originated in what is now Eastern Europe and has been the subject of much cultivation and hybridization in the Western world since the mid 1500s. These plants have history, and in spite of their susceptibility to mildew in the late summer and fall, gardeners and landscapers the world over continue to make a go of growing them – especially in colder regions. I don’t think I could ever move much further south than central Kansas because common lilacs bloom only after a period of real winter.
Lilacs bloom to announce spring to my way of thinking. And spring just wouldn’t seem real without the sight and scent of lilacs.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.