Lilac time inspires poets

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- Lilacs bring mixed emotions, linked in poetry to love but also death. Prized by gardeners in many lands, the flowers' beauty and fragrance, aside from promptings of joy or sadness, proclaim Spring has fully arrived.

T.S. Eliot perhaps struck the bluest note with his ''April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire.''

But Walt Whitman also waxed elegiac in mourning Spring's passing in ''When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.''

To Victorians who doted on the ''language of flowers,'' lilacs meant ''the emotions of first love,'' and the poet Alfred Noyes had that in mind when he wrote, ''Go down to Kew in lilac time.''

Love also imbued the 1928 hit song, still heard occasionally, ''Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time.''

Lilacs come in many varieties, but the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, of Balkan origin, has enjoyed immense popularity since it was introduced into western Europe from Turkey about 1550 and into America by the earliest colonists. By the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was frequently mentioning lilacs in his garden notes and letters.

The common lilac's ability to survive harsh winters and summer droughts with little care -- you can practically neglect it -- obviously contributed to its widespread adoption. Cultivars of the shrub produce flowers of various colors -- blue, lilac, magenta, pink, purple, violet, white and yellow -- and some bear honorific names of noted men and women.

A blue one, for example, is called ''President Lincoln,'' a pink one, ''Montaigne,'' for the 16th century French essayist, and a lilac-colored one, in French, ''Christophe Colomb.'' A double-flowered white lilac is named ''Edith Cavell'' for the British nurse executed by the Germans in World War I for helping to smuggle Allied troops from Belgium to the Dutch border.

One minus about lilac bushes: There's not much to attract you after the blooming season, and you could call them boring. Also, the leaves mildew easily in shade, but little if any serious harm results.

In my own garden, I have long-standing shrubs of blue and white common lilac, but my favorite is a smaller shrub known as Persian lilac. Historians have determined that it really originated in China and was taken to Persia many centuries ago. It has more delicate-looking flowers than the common and I fancy that its fragrance is sweeter. This bush rises to a height of about 12 feet at a corner of my house where I can see the pink-violet blooms, in mid-May, both from the kitchen and living room, a sight that has become a longed-for springtime experience. And with Whitman I truly grieve when, each year, the flowers die.

Most lilacs have the same soil requirements, exposure and culture, which means survival in virtually any soil, doing best in a rich loam midway between slightly acidic and slightly alkaline, or a pH of about 7. The shrubs can stand some shade but need a generous amount of sun for the blooms to thrive. The best time to plant young shrubs is early spring. However, this can be done also in the fall before the ground freezes. Fall plantings should be well watered.

You can grow your own common lilacs from sucker growth, often abundant, that comes up at the base of established bushes. You dig out a sucker, or sprout, with its root, and plant it in a hole wide enough to accommodate the root without cramping. Fill the hole with topsoil and compost and a little bone meal, and water well for the first season.

If you'd rather buy young nursery plants, Wayside Gardens of Hodges, S.C., Tel. 800-845-1124, is a good place to fill your orders. The catalog has many varicolored offerings at $26 each, $75 for three and $142 for six. If blue is your color, the catalog describes ''President Lincoln'' as producing blooms ''the nearest to a true blue of any variety known.''

For small yards or foundation plantings, the nursery offers ''Miss Kim'' from Korea that is easily kept pruned to 4 feet. The blooms are ice blue when mature.


EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, May 3

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