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Opinion: Lilacs a sign of summer more welcome this year than others

The vivid and contrasting shades of purple are synonymous with lilacs, of which there is no shortage here in Kingston. Photo by Martine Bresson.

The repeated, four-note riff coupled with characteristic distortion signals the start of one of Jimi Hendrix’s earliest tunes. Purple Haze. For people of “a certain age” (that’s me), those four notes are as instantly recognizable as the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th.

Purple haze also indicates the beginning of summer hereabouts. That’s when the massive arrays of flowers start to perfume the air while the bushed offer their splendid displays. Most are purple or dark pink, with the odd smidgen of white.

Lilacs are blooming in wonderful abundance everywhere.

The syringa vulgaris is anything but vulgar. The woody shrubs, part of the olive family, seem especially welcome this year. Early summer 2020 was different. Many figured the plague’s slow decline back then would be permanent. We hadn’t just been confined for months. This year, with hopes sprouting that the clampdown will soon end, massive bursts of purple highlight plague walks. We appreciate lilacs all the more. At least, I do.

Less-common, but equally beautiful and scented, white lilacs are among the rarer colours of the flowers, along with pink, and even sometimes yellow or burgundy. Photo by Martine Bresson.

The fine Barriefield Rock Garden, created some 30 years ago and maintained by platoons of volunteers, features lilacs in well-manicured setting. However, my favourite place to inhale the fragrant flowers is down the hill.

Once upon a time, the land behind the Royal Military College athletic facilities must have been a settler farmstead. These days, there’s an untended lilac forest beside the Cataraqui River. It offers a wild symphony of flowers so thick that you can’t easily walk around.

There are rough paths, though. If you come prepared with a pair of secateurs, a lush bundle of flowers will be yours in a few moments. Not that there is need of a tool. Plucking lilacs by hand is simple enough.

Take them home, grab a hammer and tap away gently at the stems before putting them is a vase of water. The room will immediately be filled with that distinctive scent. Be aware, however, that your lilacs will become limp and the smell will fade within a couple of days. So be prepared to make another foray out in search of for a fresh bouquet.

There’s no need to seek out a wild lilac forest. An abundance of lilac bushes adorn Kingston streets.

If it sounds like I’ve been at this for a while, that’s because I my childhood years in Quebec City. We lived a short block from the Plains of Abraham, where the rolling hills were, at the time, studded with thick lilac glades. (They’ve gone now; I guess the authorities got anxious about kids and others making mischief out of sight.) My brother and I would gather flowers from the Plains, hammer down the stems and sell them door-to-door. A quarter a bunch.

One reason that lilacs are so abundant is that they were often planted by early settlers, their farmsteads adorned with the tough flowering bushes. Indeed, some say that, along with apple trees and rhubarb, lilacs were among the first plants to go into the ground. Quebec City’s Battlefields Park was the site of the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as colonizers struggled for control of what was then New France. The French and British fought it out where Abraham Martin and Marguerite Langlois had established a farm in the seventeenth century. Maybe they planted the lilacs that we pinched three hundred years later. Who knows?

Those lilacs just don’t go away – as anyone who has ever tried to stop their lilacs from spreading knows very well. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a hardier bush. A few weeks ago, I got my hands on a nifty tool that’s designed and manufactured on Vancouver Island. It can actually uproot lilac suckers to stop the lilac hedge from colonizing the back.

A friend lent me the ingenious “Extractagator.” It’s an efficient contraption whose jaws surround the invasive stems so you can easily uproot them. The Extractagator even features a droll logo of a laughing alligator, toothy jaws and all.  “Invasive plants? See ya later… alligator,”grins the critter. But the relentless lilac spread will continue, of that we can be sure.

Just before I finished this article, I was cycling up the K&P Trail with a friend. We found ourselves at a spot where the Trail crosses Colebrook Road in Harrowsmith. No sooner had we rolled across the street than the trail became a dense tunnel of lilacs for about 25 metres. The flowers were thick, the scent sublime. Purple Haze.

Photo by Martine Bresson.
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4 thoughts on “Opinion: Lilacs a sign of summer more welcome this year than others

  • May 21, 2021 at 7:55 am
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    Took me right back to my grandparent’s farm of my childhood. Lilacs and Bridal Wreath Spirea always tell you where rural houses used to be located. Thank you Tori Stafford.

  • May 21, 2021 at 9:12 am
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    Wonderful piece, thank you Tori! I too gather and hammer lilacs for my bouquets, but I had never thought of the purple haze connection. When I was a kid we would carefully poke holes in a piece of coloured construction paper in a pattern to spell out a word, our name, or ‘mother’, etc, and then seat individual lilac florets into each hole, sometimes alternating white and violet. I remember loving this pastime of creating pretty flower art.

    • May 21, 2021 at 9:23 am
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      So glad you enjoyed this piece, and that it brought back such lovely memories! I, too, have fond memories of collecting lilacs from the treeline of our family property and creating all sorts of fragrant displays – you just have to be sure you remove them before they wilt, as the smell of wilting lilacs is not at all pleasant! Hahaha!
      All credit to Jamie and Martine for this lovely piece that’s so perfectly timed, as the lilacs of Kingston and the area are bursting with the colour and smell so many are familiar with. -Tori

  • July 16, 2021 at 12:52 pm
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    I come late to this article, but really, you can’t just wander the streets, plucking lilacs where you will!

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