You are the smell of all Summers, The love of wives and children, The recollection of gardens of little children,

Is there anything more memory inducing than the fragrance of a lilac?

I am feeling particularly nostalgic this week. This happens when I get ready for my summer trip to northern Michigan. I was thinking about a passing comment either my mom or my aunt made about the family bringing a lilac cutting with them when they settled in Alcona County in the later 1800s. I will dig into this family history while I’m up there but in the meantime, I thought I’d post some information about lilacs in North America in general.

This from the Katie Bentley Lilac Project:

History of the Lilac in North America

It is difficult to determine where or when the first lilacs in North America were planted. Lilacs are not native to our continent, so any lilacs we find were planted by someone who admired them and brought them from somewhere else.

Several locations are candidates for early introduction, including Mackinac Island in Michigan, the William Brewster site in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and the Wentworth Coolidge Estate in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Legend suggests that the lilacs on Mackinac Island were planted by French Jesuit missionaries in the late 1600s, but no documentation has been discovered to support the claim. The town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, is home to the site of the abandoned homestead of Elder William Brewster, leader of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation. The site north of Plymouth Plantation on which he built his new house in 1630 is covered with lilacs, and tradition tells us that he brought lilacs with him from Holland to plant at his new home, perhaps on the Mayflower voyage. The present lilacs are believed to be descended from the original planting. Ongoing research may produce documentation to support the traditional claim.

The Wentworth Coolidge estate in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is home to the Governor Wentworth lilacs, and date from 1750. The Wentworth Lilacs represent the oldest lilacs in New Hampshire and North America for which there is reasonable documentation.

We know that lilacs were grown all over the colonies by 1652, but few records exist, apparently because the lilac came in as a personal family possession, not part of the agricultural inventory. In 1753, Peter Collinson, English Quaker and wool merchant of London, sent lilacs to botanist John Bartram, of Philadelphia, sometimes called the “Father of American Botany”, who complained that lilacs “are already too numerous, as roots brought by the early settlers have spread enormously”. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1767 that he planted lilacs at his estate Monticello, and George Washington, writing about his estate, Mount Vernon, recorded in his diary that he “removed two pretty large and full grown lilacs to the No. Garden gate – one on each side, taking up as much dirt with the roots as cd. be well obtained.” These lilacs are long gone, but the Governor Wentworth lilacs and the Brewster lilacs are still there, making them the oldest recorded lilacs in North America, and the oldest that are still in the same location. There may well be other lilacs in New Hampshire, New England, and the Hudson River Valley in New York that are as old, or older, than the Wentworth and Brewster Lilacs, but discoveries have yet to be made and research and documentation have yet to be completed.

If there are old lilacs in your town, look into their history and see what you can learn.

And the best lilac poem ever written:

by Amy Lowell
False blue,
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
False blue,
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
And Massachusetts
And Vermont.
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And apple-blossoms,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
False blue,
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.

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