Asked to name her favorite flower in a Facebook post, wedding florist Trista Rose Guillaume Miller didn’t hesitate.
“Lilacs. Probably my favorite flower,” Miller wrote. “I have fond memories of picking lilacs as a kid and my mother and I arranging them in lots of vases around the house. I painted my childhood bedroom color lavender, inspired by them.”
It turns out the lilac has been a popular bush for more than three centuries in Europe and the U.S., prized for its hardiness in cold winters, its beauty and, above all, its fragrance.
This year, the National Garden Bureau, founded in 1920, designated 2022 the year of the lilac.
There’s a nostalgia associated with the bush, part of the olive family. In the Midwest, they’re easy to grow, much easier than an olive tree and will live up to a hundred years.
This enduring quality may be why there’s so much literature, filled with nostalgia, about the lilac, always mentioning its special fragrance.
Walt Whitman symbolically gave his “sprig of lilac” to Abraham Lincoln’s passing coffin in his long, sobbing 1865 elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.”
Another not so well known poet, Ed Blair, penned a 1914 “The Lilacs Mother Planted,” in 1914, calling up mother, lilacs at the doorstep and evening shadows.
Lilacs came west with the pioneers, says Ricky Kemery, retired Allen County Extension horticulture educator who issues a monthly newsletter. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew the “queen of the shrubs” in their gardens.
Civil War soldiers sang “Green Grow the Lilacs,” as a way to ease their loneliness.
Such an old fashioned horticultural selection might not seem like the obvious choice to folks roaming the aisles of plant nurseries and big chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s, but David Geller, owner of Arbor Farms Nursery on Coldwater Road says landscape contractors and families alike, buy about 200 lilac bushes a year from him.
“A lot of times, children will buy them for their mothers this time of year,” Geller said on a busy Saturday at the nursery. “Lilacs will bloom about the same time as Mother’s Day. Lilacs are still very popular. There are several varieties that are different sizes and flower color. A lot of times you can fit the plant to the location.”
The most popular shades are the pale lavender and deep purple, but lilacs come in a range of colors, including white and pink.
Lilac lovers can thank a 19th-century French horticulturalist, Victor Lemoine, for developing many cultivars at his nursery in Nancy.
The lilac, syringa vulgarism, a word denoting common, is thought to be a native to Persia and now has more than 2,000 cultivars, Kemery said.
While they may be easy to grow and rejuvenate, they’re not so easy to use in a bouquet which is why Guillaume Miller tends to use a similar looking plant called stock.
Making the most of the lilac bloom this month means taking particular care with the stems.
“They’re a very tricky cut flower, incredibly expensive and very hard to keep fresh,” Guillaume Miller said. “They are very seasonal, bloom for a couple of weeks and then they’re over.”
If you want lilacs in a vase, make sure they have water.
“The reason they don’t last is their stems are incredibly woody so it’s hard for them to take water.” She recommends “smashing” the stems and stripping the bark to extend vase life.
Smashing the stem gives more room for hydration. The downside is the method promotes bacteria in the water, “so you want flower food or use a drop of bleach,” Guillaume-Miller suggested. “You can use bleach for any of your cut flowers to cut down on the bacteria growth.”
Extending the lilac season means flower breeders have developed hybrids. One such lilac bush is the “Bloomerang” that reblooms,” Geller said.
Lilac bushes that seem to be dying may just need a good pruning at the top and especially at the bottom, Kemery said.
“Each year, remove a third of the older, thicker branches at ground level after the plant flowers,” Kemery advised in his newsletter. ‘Head back the remaining branches (about a third of the shrub) at the same time. Over time, your lilac will be a youngster again.”
Too much mulch can cause root rot and Kemery says lilacs should be planted in areas of adequate drainage. The bushes should not be overwatered, either. There’s no need for applications of high nitrogen fertilizers. It will only produce a lot more leaves and fewer flowers.
Lilacs flourished because they’re not a fussy plant and generally only need pruning after flowering.
“The traditional light lavender. That’s what I picture when I think of the lilac,” Guillaume-Miller says. “I think it’s the fragrance and they’re just so beautiful. Cut them when they just start to open. The bushes don’t bloom all at one time. They’ll bloom in stages over the next few weeks.”
Credit to Bill and Rae Huffman of Fort Wayne who provided the lilacs for the on-air segment.