Lilacs (the genus Syringa) are not native to North America, but you’d never know that by driving around New England in May. Lilacs may not be indigenous to this region, but they are long-established here. Native to southeast Europe and Asia, they were introduced to European gardens and then travelled to North America with European colonists. Most sources date their arrival in North America to the 1700s, but some claim the 1600s. At this time of year, lilacs are a major presence in the Maine landscape. It seems as though almost every house in my neighborhood has lilacs in bloom, and a drive along country roads reveals lilacs growing by houses and barns, in fields, and just along the side of the road. Once a lilac is established, it can be very long-lived; in New England, it is not uncommon to stumble across the cellar hole of a long-abandoned farmstead and find lilacs blooming in what used to be the dooryard. Most of the lilacs you will see along country roads are the old-fashioned common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, and most are the pale purple color known as “lilac.” But you will also see cultivars and hybrids in hues ranging from white to deep purple. What makes lilacs special, of course, is not so much the sight of lilac flowers as their wonderful fragrance.
The best place to see (and smell) lilacs in my part of Maine is the McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, about 15 miles away from my house. The McLaughlin Garden held their annual lilac festival last weekend. I didn’t go to the festival because it was cold and rainy and because, if the weather were better, the garden would be crowded. How much better to head out to South Paris on sunny summery morning in mid-week, when I would have the garden almost completely to myself.
As soon as I stepped through the garden gate, I was surrounded by the sight and scent of lilacs. Lilacs stretched along grassy paths as far as the eye could see; and when you turned a corner, still more lilacs awaited. The lilacs bloom here in amazing variety, from white to pale violets and pinks, to rich reds and purples. Some even had two-toned blooms, with lavender or red edged in white.
Of course, lilacs were not the only flowers blooming in the garden. They were surrounded by companion plants like these Trollius (globeflowers). The garden also has an impressive variety of woodland plants, like these Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) peeking out from under their leafy parasols.
After stopping at the plant sales area and the gift shop, I said goodbye to the McLaughlin Garden for today. But I know that its quiet beauty will draw me back again and again.