Sunday, June 1, 2008


Since our spring was so late this year, our lilacs were late too. Finally, this past week, they were in full, glorious bloom. It rained on and off all week (yes!), so I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to go out and enjoy them. They bloomed well this year, and as I went back and forth to work, I could see huge purple masses behind the sheets of rain. It finally turned warm and sunny Friday afternoon, and when I arrived home the whole world smelled of lilacs.

Last year I wrote a post about sense memories, and the scent of lilacs is my most vivid sense memory. It is my very favorite scent, ever, and they are my very favorite flowers, ever. Below, I'm repeating my lilacs post from last year. Apologies to the three of you who read it then:


American poet Amy Lowell published the poem "Lilacs" in 1925. Up to now, I had been familiar with only these lines:


"Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations
with an early moon."

Amy "got" lilacs; I can tell from the following lines:
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."


"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 the gardens of little children"

Lowell's poem lauds the lilac's distinctive heart-shaped leaf.
However much she understood and appreciated lilacs, Amy irritates me a bit. She seems to be saying that lilacs ARE New England. She enumerates: lilacs of Connecticut, of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine.

But, dear Miss Lowell, lilacs are North Dakota too. Although she wrote the following lines about New England lilacs, they evoke in me prairie scenes:

"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 in a hill."
Dilapidated old farm houses and barns dot the North Dakota countryside, sagging slowly back into the earth. Sometimes only the foundation is left, but often, beside that very same foundation, or the ghost of a shanty, sod house or dugout, is an old, old lilac bush, probably planted by homesteaders.

In the yard of our first home in Larson, there were two large lilac bushes, one on each side of the front gate. We carved a little cave into the side of one. During the winters, snowbanks would form over the top of the bushes, completely hiding them. We would climb up the solidly-packed "hills" and sled down the other side. How those bushes must have taken a beating! In fact, they looked pretty scraggly and were bloom-less by the time we moved to our next house.

Because lilacs bloom later in northern North Dakota, to me, they are inextricably entwined with Memorial Day and the sight of Old Glory. They are also entwined with memories of Vacation Bible School. We would pick heaps of blossoms at lunch time and they would add a heady scent to our afternoon lessons in the little white steepled church. I love how lilacs look against the weathered silvery gray of wooden houses that were once painted white.

Four years ago, my sister, my niece and I took a spin through Larson after we cleaned out our aunt's house in Crosby. I hadn't been back there for years. That first house had burned down a long time ago. The huge elm tree where I used to sit on a low-spreading limb and read for hours is gone. Overgrown prairie grasses hid the foundation. "The prairie has taken over," I bawled.

But there, on both sides of a path that leads to a front-door that is no longer there, were two huge, magnificent lilac bushes in full bloom. Left to their own devices, those venerable old bushes came back stronger than ever. I picked as many blooms as I could, and the scent carried us home.

Lilacs last about a week. That's not very much when you have to wait a whole year for them. Some years, when there is a late frost, the lilacs don't bloom at all, and I mourn. This year, when they are so abundant, but are still gone so quickly, I am going to do a lot of inhaling while I can.

by Amy Lowell
False blue,
Colour 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 pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dish pan 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 night-time
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 the elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where everyone 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,
Colour of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jewelled 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 the gardens of little children,
You are the 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,
Colour of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilacs 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.


Janet said...

I love this post because I, too, love lilacs. We had them in IL when I was a kid. Their scent is just about the most wonderful thing I can think of in springtime. And my favorite color is purple so they fit right in. I love your story about going back to your old home and finding only the lilacs still standing. They are truly a glorious flower.

Lila Rostenberg said...

My grandmother's house in the dust bowl part of Oklahoma had a lilac bush on the north side of the house. It was a survivor in a harsh climate! I love the scent and have memories of playing under the bush when I was visiting. Thanks for posting this again! I hope you have a wonderful week of inhaling the scent of lilacs!

Kelli said...

Wonderful post, Julie! We don't have lilacs here in Texas, but I remember them from my childhood in Canada. I love their scent!

Bimbimbie said...

I love that line "Lilacs in dooryards holding quiet conversations with an early moon". Enjoy your memory blooms ... glad you have had some rain. Smiles *!*

GreenishLady said...

Thank you for sharing your wonderful lilacs! I had none this year due to an over-enthusiastic pruning earlier in the year, but I'm hopeful there will be an abundance next year.

Sandy said...

I can almost smell them. The pictures are beautiful!

Shopgirl said...

Your Lilacs are so beautiful. I enjoyed mine for about a minute. They were blooming and when I opened the front door it was heaven. But we had a very horrible storm with big wind and when I looked they were it was great to see yours tonight.
I have a new server, the other one was a train wreck...come see me.

Rowan said...

The scent of lilacs is among my favourites, they are all flowering round here now and I always stop and enjoy them as I'm passing.

gma said...

Amazing how a scent can bring back memories and become the lilacs are for you. Although I don't have any Lilac memories, I certainly can appreciate what their scent does for you.
Sending love

Annie Jeffries said...

Well, it bears repeating dearie. Now there are NINE!!! I can smell the lilacs all the way to California.

smilnsigh said...

NYS has them too, Miss Lowell. Harrumph... -snif- :-)

I too love lilacs. And have always loved the way they still bloom, next to long abandoned farm houses. And simply foundations... This thought is warmly old fashioned, to me. Reminding me of so many things.

But I can't bring them inside. My husband would have sneezing fits. Me too, at my now *advanced* age. Who knew one could develop allergies, as one ages? -pout-


nonizamboni said...

Julie--lovely post. I can't think of any fragrance or flower I love more. And here in MN I've seen some mighty tall ones--they burst on the scene last week, heady and delicious. We had wild mint growing under a few of ours at home and I hid there whenever possible. Thanks for sharing.
Hope you're doing well!

Carole Burant said...

Such beautiful pictures of the lilacs and I loved reading what you had to say about them. I've always loved lilacs as well and we have one big lilac tree at the corner of our back lot that is just now starting to bloom. I can't wait for them to be fully opened so that I can bring some in the house:-) Right now all the lilac trees in the neighbourhood are blossoming and it's all you can smell when you pass by. As you said, though, it's a shame they don't last very long. I have a small lilac tree underneath my computer room window that use to bloom but I had to cut it right down last Fall because something was attacking the roots. This year it's growing fuller leaves but no blossoms...hopefully next year:-) xoxo

Laurie said...

You may not believe this, but lilacs are actually my favorite flower ~ nothing is sweeter or closer to my heart than the scent of lilacs from my Mother's garden.
My Mom used to cut huge bouquets of them for my grade school teachers which I proudly presented to the lucky recipient.
I miss them so they don't grow well in this southern humidity!

Shopgirl said...

Julie, My URL has changed, I have a new's a long story--Yikes!
On this comment click on shopgirl and it will take you to my new home.
Big hugs, Mary

Unknown said...

Sometimes, when I'm reading your blog, I wish you were sitting beside me so that I could make comments all the way through. I think of so many things to say and then get lazy in my post.

I laughed when you apologized to the 3 people who read this post last year. I'm sure they are mortified that you had the gall to reprint it. LOL! And, I'm glad that you set Miss Amy straight. She probably hasn't been to North Dakota!

Your memories are so wonderful. You paint such a wonderful picture! I don't see many Lilacs growing around here. It's a shame that the lifespan is so short.

My favorite fragrance was Gardenia because my mother used to wear Jungle of Gardenia. I have tried to grow a couple of gardenia plants unsuccessfully. I found out in the last couple of years that the Gardenia fragrance is not authentic when placed in perfumes and such. Apparently, they can only mimic the flower because it is impossible to take the fragrance from the plant.

Thanks, Julie, for allowing me to tiptoe through the lilacs...

Hugs, KJ

Miss Robyn said...

ooh, I love lilacs.. I have some folklore somewhere about them... they are a magickal tree... hmm watch the enchanted forest next week! I will do a post there.
They can be used for wands too!!
thankyou for signing my petition for the faeries xoxo

Thru Pink Curtains said...

I love your post and ictures on my yard i just found some that are blooming for the first time in years. was so excited!!! thanks for posting your pictures

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for visiting me !!!
Those lilacs are so beautiful, I love the colours and especially the scent, it's too bad you can't smell the pictures on the computer ; )
Have a fabulous day !!

Tea said...

This IS a beautiful post. I also love lilacs. What`s not to love about them....except that they just don`t last long enough!
I saw you now have your e-mail address up Julie, so I`ve e-mailed you. Don`t know where my e-mail address went that I sent you awhile back!
Have a wonderful weekend :)


Barbara said...

what a gorgeous poem - I was unfamiliar with it, so I'm so glad you shared it!

Diana S said...

mmmm. I love the smell of lilacs. those are a beautiful color! Gary planted a little lilac this year, it's only about 8" high so I've got to wait a few years before I can smell my own. :)

kathyann said...

Lovely post Julie I stopped by last night but decided to call back when I had more time to read it through,I love Lilacs,Ceri's neighbours was gorgeous in full bloom!Thanks for your lovely comments and I hope things are picking up for you can be so tough but we keep going don't we!!
Love from Kathy and the girls

Naturegirl said...

Oh yes the lilacs are certainly in full bloome here in Canada too! We also have had a late start with Spring but I don't mind because my lilacs and peonies are in full bloom at the same time!!! MMMMM...when the breezes blow!! Lilacs are my favorite Spring flower too!hugs NG

Colleen - the AmAzINg Mrs. B said...

Love lilacs - they remind me of my very early childhood (up to age 6) in the midwest. THen on to Arizona where the conditions are not right for lilacs - now in Utah where I can enjoy them each spring ...but for too short a time!

SweetAnnee said...

I love lilacs too. Ours have come and gone and we so enjoyed them.
Tis a shame they don't last all summer for their fragrance is wonderful.
Wonderful post..smiles to you..

Joyce said...

Oh I MISS Lilacs so much.....and Peonies.....ugh! We just can't do them down here. But we had them when we lived in Iowa....I made my husband come and look at your photos so we could reminiss.....I love the deep purple ones....and my In-Law's had a HUGE white bush in their yard..lovely!

This post makes me homesick. HA! I do miss the Springtime in the Midwest.

IT's SO HOT here now...we are in the upper 90's and VERY humid. Blah!
Enjoy your beautiful flowers and weather!
See ya~!

Shopgirl said...

Julie my little Irish peach....I do make my own banners. It takes a little time, but it is worth it when someone seems to like it. Thank you vor comeing by.
This one seemed to just fit...
Big Hugs, Mary

Maggie said...

I swear I could smell those lilacs you posted. We have three lilac bushes, a patch of lily of the valley and peonies and all are in bloom at the same time....... the scent from each corner of the garden is heaven.

Anonymous said...


couragetocreatewriteandlove said...

I ADORE lilacs!!!

Lena said...

Oh Julie, what lovely photographs! I truly treasure this time of year.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem. I've enjoyed it very much.

Best wishes to you!