Lilac’s contradictions

“[T]he lilacs nodded over the high wall as if they said, “We could tell fine secrets if we chose…” – Louisa May Alcott, “Under the Lilacs,” 1878

A decade after publishing her best-known novel, “Little Women” (1868), Louisa May Alcott wrote “Under the Lilacs,” a story about childhood friendships shaped and cemented as the children play school and host imaginative parties under the lilac trees. Alcott was deliberate in using lilacs in her book since “youthful innocence” was a familiar meaning associated with lilacs during the Victorian period. Alcott scatters this symbolism throughout the novel;  in one passage describing a sleeping boy, she writes, “The wind had sung a lullaby among the rustling lilacs, the moon’s mild face looked through the leafy arch to kiss the heavy eyelids…”

In fact, there are many stories that mention lilacs and many folk stories about lilacs, themselves. Altogether, these stories have resulted in diverse, and sometimes contradictory, traditions and associations of meaning attributed to lilacs. 

The genus name for lilacs, Syringa, originated from an ancient Sanskrit word, syrinx, meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘tube’ for the squarish pithy stems that can be easily hollowed out. ‘Lilac’ is derived from the Persian word, nylac, referring to the bluish-purple color of the panicles.

One of many legends about the lilac is that of Pan, the Greek god of forests and fields. Pan lusted after a wood nymph whose only recourse to escape his unwanted ardor was to turn into a lilac bush. Pan had to console himself with gathering the stems and binding them together to make a panpipe, or syrinx, in hopes of wooing the nymph back through his lovelorn melodies. ‘Love’ and ‘beauty’ are two meanings associated with lilacs stemming from this myth.

“First love’” and “youthful innocence’” are other meanings associated with lilacs because of its spring-time bloom period. Charles Dickens utilized lilacs’ association with first love in “David Copperfield” (1850) when Copperfield meets Dora: “But oh! when I DID find the house, and DID dismount at the garden-gate, and drag those stony-hearted boots across the lawn to Dora sitting on a garden-seat under a lilac tree, what a spectacle she was, upon that beautiful morning, among the butterflies, in a white chip bonnet and a dress of celestial blue!”

An old Persian love song also features the love-ly lilac:

“Ah, let me weave a chaplet for your hair/Of pale and rosy lilacs, lady fair/Woe to the lover who would choose a rose/that in its heart a stinging bee may close./Or yet a lily, or a spray of vine/Or any bloom that wreathes a cup of wine./The flower I gather, love, for your sweet sake/Breathes love that neither time nor ill can shake.”

On the other hand, supposedly an old Persian custom is to offer a lover a spray of purple lilacs as a way of saying, “I’m sorry, but it’s over between us.” Apparently, the sweet-smelling flowers are meant to distract the spurned individual until the “spurner” can make a hasty retreat!

The English began cultivating lilacs around the time of Henry VIII, and the lilac is still an important part of May Day celebrations there. However, according to one legend, an English nobleman seduced a gullible, young maiden and then abandoned her to die of a broken heart. A wreath of purple lilacs was placed on the hapless girl’s grave, but the flowers turned white as a sign of her purity.  Not only did this story add to the flower’s 19th century associations with “youthful innocence,” it also sparked the superstition that it’s unlucky to bring white lilacs indoors for fear the young maids in the house will never marry.

White lilacs are also often associated with death, as many other white flowers are. Walt Whitman mentions lilacs in a poem in which he mourns the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln:

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed/And the great star early drooped in the western sky in the night/I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring” (1865). 

Conversely, lilacs are known for their longevity. A member of the olive family, they can live 100 years or more. Because they thrive in diverse climates, American pioneers traveling to the West to start a new life brought lilac bushes with them and planted them by their doorsteps. Many settlers did not stay; yet, years after their homesteads were abandoned, the lilacs still bloomed in the springtime for only the wind and the prairie dogs to enjoy.

Perhaps it’s the lilac’s association with steadfastness that led poet Robert Burns to write:

“Oh, were my love yon lilac fair/With purple blossoms to the spring/And I a bird to shelter there/When wearied on my little wing” (1793).

I appreciate that the lilac sends so many disparate messages:  ‘love’ and ‘forsaken,’ ‘youthfulness’ and ‘death,’ ‘innocence’ and ‘cursed.’ After all, a plant that lives as long as the lilac is sure to be complicated, and can’t we say the same of ourselves?

There are several types of lilacs that grow anywhere from 4-5 feet for dwarf varieties up to 30 feet tall for lilac trees. The most widely known is the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, of which there are 28 species and countless hybrids, including the “French” lilacs. In addition, the lilac families includes the: Persian lilac (S. persica); Chinese lilac (S. chinensis); Himalayan lilac (S. villosa); dwarf Korean lilac , also called Meyer lilac (S. palebinina); and tree lilacs (S. amurensis).

Lilacs grow well in my neighborhood in old East Medford, Oregon because they don’t mind heavy clay soil. They also do well in alkaline soil. They need moderate levels of water and do best with plenty of sunshine. They attract bees and butterflies, but watch out for aphids, leaf miners, spider mites, leaf spot, and powdery mildew.

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  • About the Author

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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