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May 30, 2013

lilac in fieldLilacs (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.

MclLaughlin lilacs gateAs 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.

McLaughlin trollius 2013 McLaughlin mayapple 2013

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.

McLaughlin garden May

18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2013 1:41 am

    What a wonderful walk through a lilac garden. I also quite fancy lilacs and even in my garden I have both natives and cultivars. We don’t get quite enough sunlight to get really good blooms, but they remind me of growing up in the Midwest so I have a strong attachment to them. I suspect that I am not the only person who sees them as a connection to family members.

    • June 1, 2013 9:45 pm

      Charlie, My own attachment to lilacs is definitely linked to family (they were a favorite of my mother) and also to childhood memories. I think you are right that those connections are an important part of their appeal.

  2. May 31, 2013 3:09 am

    Thanks for the garden ramble, Jean! Syringa x persica is very high on my list and I hope to find it very soon 🙂

    • June 1, 2013 9:50 pm

      Annette, On my drive up to the McLaughlin Garden, I passed some houses that had smaller, more compact lilacs blooming; now I wonder if these were Syringa x persica. It seems like a neater, easier to keep attractive shrub than Syringa vulgaris. Does it have the same heavenly scent?

      • June 2, 2013 9:55 am

        Oh Jean, it’s far more attractive, especially the foliage and it also has a beautiful scent. S. vulgaris has rather ugly foliage (my humble opinion 🙂 ), wonder why S. x persica isn’t more widely grown… (height & spread: 2m)

  3. May 31, 2013 11:59 am

    Looks like a day well spent, Jean. I wish I could grow lilacs where I live now. I have fond memories of their smell when I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest.

    • June 1, 2013 9:52 pm

      Chad, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the sense of smell is especially evocative of memories. I can’t help noticing how many comments here (and my own experience) link the heady fragrance of lilacs to fond childhood memories.

  4. May 31, 2013 12:31 pm

    Lilacs may not be native, but they should be. They are pretty unremarkable most of the year, but that period of fragrance more than justifies their place in the garden.

    • June 1, 2013 9:55 pm

      Jason, This is why I don’t think I could ever have an all-native-plant garden. There are some plants that became part of our garden scene so many generations ago and are such an important part of what it means to garden in a region, that we can’t imagine a garden without them. I would put both lilacs and peonies (both very long-lived plants) in that category.

  5. May 31, 2013 12:32 pm

    Oooh, pretty! There is such a variety of color and form available for lilacs, too bad I filled up my space with 6 plants of the same type. It makes my inner designer happy – unity through repitition and all – but my inner plant collector sulk. Anyway, love the photos of a beautiful garden.

    • June 1, 2013 9:59 pm

      VW, I love your description of the tension between your inner garden designer and your inner plant collector. I think I tend more toward the plant collector end of the continuum. I get repetition from plants that grow rapidly in my conditions and get divided and repeated in other parts of the garden. I also try to reconcile plant collector and garden designer by planting clusters of different varieties of the same plant. This seems to be what Bernard McLaughlin (the original creator of the McLaughlin Garden) did, too. There were a number of places in the garden where different varieties planted near one another had grown together so that their branches and flowers overlapped and it almost looked like multiple colors of flowers growing on the same plant. I found these effect lovely, but I wasn’t able to really capture it on film.

  6. June 1, 2013 4:30 pm

    What a fabulous composite photograph of all those lovely lilacs Jean – really stunning. I love the scent of them too – I don’t have any in my own garden, but my route to school is festooned with several huge ones, and the scent is beautiful. Happy gardening, Ursula

    • June 1, 2013 10:01 pm

      Ursula, When I am in Gettysburg, I also “borrow” lilac fragrance from gardens that border mine or that are along my walk to work. I never can resist stopping to sniff whenever I go by a lilac in bloom. 🙂

  7. June 2, 2013 6:20 am

    What a beautiful spot especially with all those lilacs…I had no idea how old they were here in the US. And I love a garden that shows non-native wonder with native plants.

    • June 2, 2013 9:02 pm

      Donna, When you come to visit after we’re both retired :-), we’ll take a drive up to the McLaughlin Garden. It really is a lovely place.

  8. June 2, 2013 5:54 pm

    so much variety across the colour lilac. I’ve never met one, but can imagine the fragrance from your stories and told memories.

    • June 2, 2013 9:03 pm

      Diana, The color range is lovely, I don’t think any other fragrance is quite like that of the lilac.

  9. June 9, 2013 5:36 pm

    Hi Jean, thanks for this information about the lilacs. Their flowers look similar to those of buddleija. I wish we had room for a lilac in the garden, but they do grow to be very large shrubs and we haven’t got anywhere near that much room. I think there are more dwarf varieties that are being developed so I may be able to enjoy one up-close instead of viewing them in other people’s gardens from afar or going to the Garden Centre.

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