Established in 1982, Lilacs (Syringa) are native to Eastern Europe and Asia. They are in the olive family (Oleacea) and are best known for their fragrant and robust flower clusters that come in a variety of colors from pink to deep purple and ivory white.
They flower mid-spring to early summer. The earliest record of this flowering shrub arriving in America is with plantings around the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when then Governor Benning Wentworth planted lilacs there in 1750. (These lilacs are considered to be the oldest in North America. Lilacs are very much a part of this country’s history with both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington establishing plantings around their homes. Thomas Jefferson even discusses his method of planting lilacs in his garden book.)
Lilacs evolved in cold climates where a period of dormancy was very much part of their ecology, hence a period of cold is required to trigger flowering. While well loved and enjoyed primarily for their beautiful bouquets of flowers, the wood of the lilac has been utilized over the centuries for engraving, musical instruments, and knife handles. It is a close grained and tough wood that lends itself to fine detail and comes in several colors from brown to purple.
They are tough plants, easy to transplant and establish, come in hundreds of varieties, and are a traditional homestead planting throughout New England where many a cellar hole can be identified by the lilacs still growing there, long after the original house has vanished. This characteristic behavior is typical since lilacs spread by means of underground shoots.
Lilacs symbolize love and are associated with Easter time in Greece, Lebanon and Cyprus where it flowers during this time. It is the New Hampshire state flower symbolizing the hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State. They were featured in Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” a poem elegy to Abraham Lincoln.