Canadian poet Al Purdy knew what he was talking about when he wrote “the whole world smells of lilacs/the whole damn world.” May is lilac month—an all-too-brief period when you can walk outside and know immediately what’s blooming. While lilacs aren’t actually native to Canada, they’re still a sign of approaching summer in many parts of the country—and here are some things you might not know about these late-spring beauties.
Lilacs are originally from eastern Europe and parts of Asia
The word “lelacke” made it into print in English in the early 17th century, but it’s thought to originate from the Persian “lilak,” meaning “bluish.” While the most common form of lilac is originally from the Balkans, lilacs travelled along trade routes all over Europe and Asia. And even though it’s not native to North America, it isn’t considered aggressive (although it is technically invasive).
In North America, lilacs can be reminders of abandoned settlements and homes
If you drive along country roads, chances are you may come across groups of lilac bushes. Since lilacs don’t propagate well in the wild, lilacs that seem to be in the middle of nowhere are generally remnants of an earlier homestead or farm.
Lilacs are part of the olive family
Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are actually a family of about 21 flowering plant species that are part of the Oleaceae family, which includes olives, ash, and jasmine.
Lilacs come in a wide range of colours
While the colour called lilac is a light purple, lilacs come in colours that range from purple to blue to pink, magenta, white, and bi-coloured. Shades can vary depending on a number of factors, including location, soil, climate, and the year. Lilacs tend to produce abundant blooms every other year.
Lilacs are sun-lovers
Lilacs need at least six hours of sun to reach their full potential. They also prefer slightly alkaline soil that’s on the dry side—they don’t do well with wet feet. Once they’re established, lilacs are hardy and tend to grow well. Cultivars with dark purple flowers will benefit from a little shade, as this will help keep the flowers’ dark colour vibrant.
One of the world’s largest collections of lilacs is in Ontario
The Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario has one of the world’s largest collections of lilacs, featuring more than 745 plants. For the best viewing (and smelling) time, head to the RBG during its annual Lilac Festival, which takes place in late May.
Lilacs were grown in North America’s first botanical gardens
Lilacs have been a recognizable presence in North America since the mid-eighteenth century. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington had them planted in their gardens.
For best results, prune lilac shrubs right after flowering
Keeping lilacs between six and nine feet tall will keep flowers at nose height—although, left unchecked, lilac shrubs can grow up to 20 feet tall. Tree lilacs, like the Peking tree lilac or the Japanese tree lilac, can grow even taller than that.
There’s a method to reviving an old lilac
If you’ve got a lilac shrub that’s old or not performing well, trim one-third of the oldest wood down to the ground in the first year. The year after that, take away half the remaining wood. In the third year, take away the remainder of the old wood.
There’s a Canadian lilac hybrid
Preston lilacs, which were created by Canada’s first female hybridizer, Isabella Preston, are a cross between Syringa villosa and Syringa komarowii. Preston hybrids are late-blooming and are much larger shrubs than standard lilacs. They’re also extremely hardy, since they were bred for the Canadian climate.
A lilac’s smell can change depending on the season
A lilac’s scent can change character based on the year’s climate. A cool spring and summer will yield a different scent than a hot season.
The inability to identify lilac scent can predict Alzheimer’s
A 2004 study found that the inability to identify common scents, including lilac, lemon, strawberry and leather, can predict whether patients with minimal to mild cognitive impairment will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Wood from the lilac tree is very dense
Lilac wood is prized for making musical instruments, knife handles, and pens.