Friday, June 22, 2012

lilacs last

I love lilacs, and I love to prune, so it was natural that pruning the lilac would be a highlight of my mid-June stay at our Idaho 'vacation' home. Legend has it that the root stock of this lilac came from Bessie and Otto's farm in 1943, when Steve's parents, Alice and Homer, moved the half mile to what was then called "the Tom Johnson place." Steve, the youngest of three sons, was two at the time. I suspect that Bessie brought her start of the lilac from Mary and George's farm, and so I would be the fourth generation of women to marry into the family and tend a plant that probably came west with homesteaders in the 1880s. Who else do you know who could say: "Please say hello to my lilac-in-law!"

This was not the first time I had pruned the venerable shrub, but I hadn't had a chance to do it for at least four years. Though June may not be the best time to prune lilacs, I was seized by a feeling of "now or never" and spurred on by the purchase of a lovely new pruning saw. There was plenty of dead wood to remove, along with spent blossoms in various stages of desiccation, and so I spent parts of four or five days cutting. During most of this time I was closely monitored by chickens (four hens and a rooster) who like to spend their afternoons in dense lilac shade. They watched suspiciously at first, but their clucks became tolerant.if not actually friendly when they saw that I was scaring up masses of juicy earwigs for them to eat.

My modus operandi in pruning is to start at the bottom, identifying branches that cross each other in their quest for sunlight. This opens up the center of the plant and lessens the number of cuts that need to be made when I finally reach the top. Since this lilac is over eight feet tall, I bend each branch and hold it at eye level while I thin the topmost foliage to stimulate new growth and future blossoms.

Unfortunately, I have never been in Idaho when our lilac was in bloom. Based on Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd, I have assumed that this would be in April. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, and the poem is a heartfelt elegy on him and, by extension, on the Civil War's myriad dead. I visited Idaho twice in April of this year, however, and did not see a single blossom.

Though literary authority often takes precedence in my view of the real world, I also rely heavily on The Sunset Western Garden Book, which pronounces that lilacs bloom in May. Never having experienced Idaho much between New Years and Memorial Day, I at last reconciled my literary and horticultural sources by reference to Wikipedia, where I learned that Lincoln's body lay in state until April 21, 1865, and his funeral train took three weeks to get to his final resting place in Illinois.

Just as I cannot think of lilacs without conjuring up Walt Whitman, I cannot think of pruning without recalling the major surgery I performed on a row of lilacs that grew alongside our house in Evanston, Illinois. The house was built around 1902, and we had bought it in 1972 from an elderly couple (daughter and son-in-law of the builder) who had not done much gardening in recent years.

As a graduate student in English Lit at the time, I was delighted to find real lilacs in what I immediately defined as our door-yard! They shaded the back door, and ran all the way to the front door -- a distance of about 30 feet along an unpaved alley. The shrubs were at least eight feet tall and did not bloom significantly during our first spring there (1972). Disappointed to be missing the Whitmanesque moment, I surmised that they needed pruning, but did not do the work in time to see the fruits of my labors before we moved away in 1975..

You may think I am leading up to a complaint about being deprived of lilac blossoms. Au contraire! Sometime in the late 80s, we took Alice and Homer on a springtime outing to see poppies and lupines in the Lancaster (CA) area. We returned home through Bouquet Canyon, where we visited Margaretten Park, then home to 50,000 lilac bushes on 80 acres of private land bordered by graceful tamarisk trees. In one idyllic day, we saw and smelled more lilacs than most people experience in a lifetime.  It was enough to convince me that lilacs are well worth the wait and whatever labor it takes to help them happen.
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POSToccupations by Frances Talbott-White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License