Don't mess with lilacs

I stumbled upon an "expert" article on  the latest warm-climate, late-blooming, hothouse hybrid of the lilac promising it now can launch a rainbow of color variations far beyond the apparently passé signature tone that even Crayola calls "lilac."

Changing everything natural about the plant's appearance and behavior doesn't make it better, but only creates a Kardashian bloom that not only makes you wonder why you bothered to look, but leaves you feeling bad for doing so.  

But the worst of it was proclaiming the re-engineered lilac is "no longer just the heavy-scented, sentimental favorite flower of your grandmother."

As my grandmother is no longer available to directly set the haughty horticulturalist to task , I feel an obligation to Grandma Mohn and all her strong, smart, solid Northeastern sisters to set the record straight. 

A lilac is a kick-ass plant for real people. It naturally and actually likes a long, cold winter and is among the first bushes or trees to push out buds in the spring. While most other flowering  plants, trees and bushes are still holding out for better conditions and a stronger sign of summer, it's lilacs that say "Screw you, winter," with a bloom and fragrance so heady and ostentatious you know it means business. 

You "prune" a lilac by cutting stems while  they are blooming -- and putting the flowers in vases and buckets around the house as you open the windows and let winter out. If you've spent your life in a hot-house (or air-conditioning) perhaps you think a sachet or subtle candle do the job. They can't. Lilacs can. 

If a lilac gets a little ahead of itself and buds before a hard frost, the blossoms will sit out a season. But like a hockey player stuck in the penalty box, it's only a temporary setback and it will be even tougher the next time it gets back in the game. 

I grew up on a street that dead-ended to a railyard in the city of Buffalo, NY.  The space between houses was narrow and the backyards were small. There was lilac bush in our backyard planted either by my great grandmother or grandmother. I recall the bush was about the size of a three-story apartment building, but I was six-years-old and may have had an issue with scale. 

I loved living there far too much to understand my wood frame castle was small and simple or that we actually moved "up" when we left.  My father was born right there, my grandmother said, pointing to the corner of the kitchen where the Kelvinator refrigerator sat.  At that point, the only birthing I had dealt with directly was a cat who dropped a litter of kittens in a beer crate, so I just assumed the refrigerator had always been there.  I was more than relieved when my mother went to the hospital to deliver my brother the next year.

It was a close neighborhood physically and emotionally. The only family on the block with a color television invited  everyone else over on Sunday nights to watch Disney's "Wonderful World of Color." The weekly living room mob was packed too tight to consider snacks or bathroom breaks, so the plastic pitchers of Kool-Aid and greasy, brown-paper, grocery bags of stove-popped popcorn were dropped off in the kitchen as families arrived and were shared after the show.  

As nearly every house had a least one thriving lilac bush of similar size, I have to assume their planting was the same kind of "share-the-wealth" streetwise endeavor and no one paid a cent to start any of the plants.  Lilacs were the perfect choice for that time, place and people as once a lilac took hold there was very little you could do to slow them down.

I went home Memorial weekend for the worst of reasons, my aunt's funeral. The service and family gathering were a true celebration of her life and the time with my cousins and their children was wonderful. But she was the last of her generation and the ache of the loss of her parents, two sisters, two brothers and all their spouses only amplified the hurt. Yes, I am a grandmother now, but it's still a solid kick to the kid in you when all the grown-ups that got you to this place are gone. 

I took a walk by myself for some quiet time with them at the place where they all had summer cottages -- the place where my parents met, had their wedding reception and brought me home from the hospital. My grandparents, aunts and uncles were the village raised me.

The area where our cottages are today is as carefully tended by my generation as it was by our parents, but other parts of the area have more abandoned than occupied buildings. Knowing how vibrant these areas had been only amplified the loss. I started to head back to the gathering, when the breeze shifted to pull me forward again. 

Against an abandoned building was an astounding clump of lilacs so heavy with blooms the branches bent. Yes, it was a tsunami of scent, but not the cloying, old-lady essence scoffed by Mr. Fancy Hybrid in his arrogant promotion of re-engineering perfection. 

I closed my eyes and the sadness of the weekend and broken building was replaced by the big, bright, clean aroma of my warmest memory.  The monster-bush didn't need fuss, fertilizer or tidy environs to defiantly announce again  "let's get this party started" and herald the possibilities of summer in a place where winter comes hard. 

Yes, it's personal when someone thinks a lilac can be "better" by forcing it into the color and behavior of other temperate climate wimps. Lilacs are "grandmotherly" only if your grandmother was resilient, strong, stubborn and never gave up on the possibility of beauty. 

Mine was.  I love lilacs just the way they are.,