Lilacs were traditional wedding gifts. Seasonally, lilacs in bloom signal the time to plant beans and corn. Photo by Mary Mumbrue

Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Walt Whitman began writing his famous poem, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,” on April 14, 1865, after he had heard that Abraham Lincoln had been shot.

At the time of the Civil War lilacs were comfort plants and reminders of home. The common purple lilac, Syringa vulgaris, from southeast Europe, had been a garden favorite since the first European settlers arrived in North America.

Lilacs meant health, well-being and good fortune. A lilac planted near a window or a door was a traditional wedding gift; a white lilac planted by a grave said, “We remember, we care.” As families traveled West, they took along lilacs as a reminder of home.

Other useful lilacs are the Dwarf Korean Lilacs, such as Syringa patula, “Miss Kim,” and Syringa meyeri, “Palibin” native to Korea and eastern Asia. These compact shrubs have very fragrant flowers and their mature size is less than six feet. The Japanese Tree Lilacs, [Syringa reticulata,] are native to northern Japan. These dark green plants grow 20 to 30 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide with large clusters of ivory flowers. They do well in a garden or as a small street tree.

Lilacs are easy to grow. Their thick growth habit protects nesting birds; their fragrance attracts butterflies. Lilacs need full sun, good air circulation, occasional watering when young, and protection from strong winds. For bloom the following year clip off all the flower clusters as soon as they fade. Once established, lilacs can live a hundred years.

While Americans were moving West, French nurseries began hybridizing lilacs. The Lemoine family – Victor, his son Emile, and grandson Henri, produced more than 200 commercially successful lilac cultivars, including the first double-flowered lilacs. Marie Louise, Victor’s wife, who climbed the stepladder and did the hundreds of pollinations, is still remembered in “Mme Lemoine,” a beautiful double, fragrant lilac that bears her name.

In 1911, Col. and Mrs. Plum of Lombard, Ill., visited the Lemoine nursery. They bought two lilac plants and soon became avid collectors. When they died they left Lombard their home for a library and their lilacs for a park. Lilacia Park and the Morton Arboretum are lovely nearby places to visit in May and a great way to identify the perfect lilac for the garden.

In addition to being pretty and smelling good, lilacs are useful indicator plants. When the lilacs leaf out, it is the time to sow cool-season vegetables such as lettuce, peas and spinach.

When the lilacs are in bloom, it is time to plant warm-season crops such as beans and corn.

When the lilacs finish blooming, it is safe to plant tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers.