Mine are coming into bloom right now. The lilac above grows outside my back door and I adore everything about this shrub. The season is short but intense. In fact, much about lilac seems to be intense from the tight clusters of perfect flowers, to the unforgettable scent, to the historical perspective.
Syringa vulgaris – the common lilac – was brought into Europe in the 16th century by traders and ambassadors to the Persian and Ottoman empires. It represented the secrecy of paradise in these exotic domains.
In Renaissance times it was thought that Pan’s pipes were made from the hollow stems of the lilac bush as syringa comes from the word syrinx meaning tube.
The early 17th century gardens of England and France overflowed with lilac but as time passed and the plant came out of the privacy of royal and noble spaces and into public areas, it lost its original connection to that Eastern secret paradise.
It became common.
The Victorian language of flowers further damaged lilac’s reputation by making it the indicator of death – coffins were routinely draped with white lilac boughs.
In England the profusion of tiny flowers, the magical colours and the heady scent all came to be associated with decadence and sexuality.
In France these qualities were embraced. Louis XIV adored lilac.
So did the Empress Josephine who had Redoute paint pictures of the plant for her.