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: