Aroma of lilacs


Every spring I look forward to my lilacs. I have a clump each of purple and white. Their bloom is short lived but is worth every breath. My apologies to gardenia, jasmine, magnolia, osmanthus and a few others, but lilac is my favorite floral aroma.

I look forward to cutting a few and placing them in a vase on the dining room table. They are now showing color and awaiting my shears. I always look forward to seeing how much time passes before Roberta notices. It’s never very long.

The smell of lilac brings back so many memories. I dug my purple lilac from my grandfather’s farm. I idolized him and he was best man at my wedding thirty-two years ago. Every time I see a lilac, particularly a purple one I think of him.

In the cooler climate of southern Maine his lilacs were glorious. When I was a kid blooming lilacs also signaled peak trout fishing and fiddlehead foraging. My grandfather was always game for either one. He always cut purple lilacs for interior enjoyment too.

I’ve struggled to keep that purple lilac of mine healthy over the years. Hurricane Isabel took down my neighbor’s large cedar tree that provided necessary afternoon shade. Summer heat and encroaching trumpet vine have pestered it ever since, but my grandfather’s lilac is hanging in there.

I brought my white lilac back from West Virginia. I dug it up from my wife’s parents’ property. We planted it at the northwest corner of the house and it is shaded during the heat of the day by the house and a huge sycamore tree.

Ezra and Elliose have both passed, but the fragrance of that white lilac brings back fond memories. It’s funny how plants can keep these feelings alive.

We are a little too far south for lilacs to thrive. Keeping them is usually a struggle, so it’s satisfying to have them in the landscape for so long. These fragrant beauties must have some sun to grow and flower, but too much will be their downfall. In northern climates they usually can be found growing in full sun.

Lilacs require at least six hours of sunlight for optimal bloom, but here in eastern North Carolina they can’t handle mid-day sun. They struggle in acid soils and also can’t tolerate wet feet.

As is true with most spring blooming species, lilacs flower on the previous season’s wood. Therefore, they should be pruned shortly after blooming. They also benefit from severe pruning from time to time particularly in the south. Younger vigorous growth is best.

Many people like lilac but have trouble growing them. If you like small trees that favor lilac there is an option. I have a few vitex in my yard and at school, and they have somewhat of a lilac appearance. They are about the same size and flower clusters look similar. Vitex even bloom for a much longer period and are easier to grow. They just don’t stimulate the olfactory senses the same way.

White lilac blooms

White lilac blooms

My West Virginia white lilac

My West Virginia white lilac

My old purple lilac is still hanging in there.

My old purple lilac is still hanging in there.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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5 Responses to Aroma of lilacs

  1. Rich White says:

    My 10 yr. old purple northern lilac , bought as a 2ft. shrub at Master Gardener sale, finally bit the dust this past winter..I should have let more of the suckers grow, rather than trim it to a tree shape, I reckon. Pix of yours look like my aunt’s in Pa. She had about 3 colors, in 8-10 ft. high , 6 ft. wide shrubs all along the width of her yard….is that flat, white, (Japanese?, starts with a “k”?) lilac any hardier? don’t think it has the lilac smell though.thanks.R.White

  2. joanneeddy says:

    Growing up in upstate New York lilac was everywhere and grew 12+ feet tall. There were huge bushes on the back fence at my elementary school and we always knew it was spring when their sweet fragrance was carried into the playground on the spring winds. Not having much luck with it here…I think it’s location is too sunny and will move it this fall!

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