Time may be relative, but in the garden it is relational. In the British Isles it is common to sow runner beans, Phaseolus coccineus when the lilacs are in flower. Runner beans are frost-tender and although lilacs often flower when there are still frosts, by the time the beans have germinated and are poking their heads through the soil, the risk of frost is almost always over. As spring arrives with variation across the country, at different altitudes, at different times of year even, the lilac blossom is a better guide to benign conditions for beans than a fixed date on the calendar. In Oxford, the blossom is starting to brown at the edges of the petals whilst eighty miles further north in Worcestershire, it is at its fullest glory. It is a welcome flower in the garden, arriving before the roses, and occasionally over-lapping with the paeonies.
When T.S. Eliot wrote his poem The Waste Land, it had either been an exceptionally mild year, or he was writing about an experience of lilacs somewhere other than in England, or he was writing from memory and making a mistake – his lilacs flower in April. I do start to look for lilacs in the last week of April, in part prompted by the first line of the poem, but more because they are another signpost of the turning year. Along with runner beans, it signals the right time for other garden tasks and a change in expectation of the crops which can be enjoyed from the vegetable patch. In the garden, time is cyclical too, or rather, helical.
Syringa vulgaris is a member of the olive family OLEACEAE, and native throughout the Balkans. Syringa shares the same derivation as syringe, meaning a small tube, which is a reference to the sweet-smelling flowers which are born in terminal panicles, usually in pairs, but sometimes in threes. The abundant, short funnel flowers are an excellent food source for the short-tongued nectar feeding insects. The colour range of the species is from pale lilac to white, but the great French nurseryman Victor Lemoine had terrific success breeding new cultivars with deeper colours, or double flowers. I planted a pale garden a few years, quartered around a pool and fountain. It was quite small and sheltered, and I filled it with highly fragrant flowers fo all types. The centre-piece of each quarter was a multi-stemmed ‘Madame Lemoine’, white-flowered and lovely.
The lilac spread through the gardens of western and northern Europe in the late 16th Century, having been introduced from Ottoman gardens. They had reached North America by the 18th century and it is the state flower of New Hampshire. The tree itself is hardy down to -20 Celsius and the challenge for the North American plant breeders has been to create later-flowering cultivars so that the buds and blossom are not struck by late frosts. As a relatively late introduction to British gardens, there is little folklore or folk uses for lilac. The flowers are edible, but smell better than they taste and I cannot recommend eating them.