April Is the Cruelest Month, but It Brings Lilacs

Lilac bushes present their flowers profusely in spring, most often in April. For Colorado, this means the grandiose display might fall victim to late snows and freezes. The unstated counsel from the annual spectacle of cascading buds points out that for life to continue, lilacs, as well as all living things, have to face risks. So lilacs bloom according to their nature and occasionally lose the race to obtain sufficient warmth and water to strut their stuff.

Lilacs possess a special attraction for me. I don’t know why, have tried to analyze it to see how the feeling of joy that swells in me when I spot the lilacs might be transferred to other situations. Although I’ve been unsuccessful, I think it has something to do with childhood.

My strongest memory of the flower is from about the age of six. My family was living with my grandfather in a tiny Minnesota rural town. The lilac bush grew beside his small two story frame house, which lacked an indoor toilet and potable water. It compensated by having a glorious plant, at least eight feet tall (remember, I was probably three feet tall at the time), and eight feet in circumference. If I shoved through the first layer of branches in grasping distance, I could push them aside to reach a hollowed -out interior. A secret house, a retreat, a place to hide, where the scent of the lilacs surrounded me. There I would host parties for my dolls and build creations from twigs, stones and scraps of this and that.

I wasn’t alone in this belief that lilac bushes were places of enchantment. They lent their presence to stories and poems, such as Louisa May Alcott’s novel Under the Lilacs. Because lilacs are so ubiquitous, growing in nearly every area of the US except the South and places that lack a cold winter, readers immediately recognize their beauty and familiar comfort. They’re a common symbol for spring, for rebirth, for determination.

Somehow, over the years, it seems to me lilacs have toned down their persistent awesome fragrance. Decades ago one early morning while taking a walk, I was struck by their delicate scent wafting at least a block in all directions. Since then I’ve wondered if I’d been up especially early when the cool air was friendlier to the perfume or had there been less traffic exhaust than usual through some fluke? Ever since then I’ve had to step close, to bury my nose in the blooms in order to catch the bouquet. Another victim of ever-increasing population growth and traffic.

Lilacs are glorious. When I see them, I want to embrace them, bury my body in them. I wonder what passersby in the local park think when they see me standing motionless deep within a bush, clinging to an armful of branches. Talk about tree-huggers! No other plant inspires in me such intensity. I’m a victim, just like the Greek who created the story about lilacs.

According to Greek mythology, the enchantment of lilacs began when Pan, god of forests and fields, spotted a gorgeous nymph named Syringa (lilac’s botanical name). Captivated by her beauty, he chased her through the forest. Frightened by Pan’s affections, Syringa used her powers to turn herself into an aromatic bush, thus escaping him. The plant, which we refer to as lilacs, symbolize in the language of flowers, the first emotions of love (purple), while white lilacs represent youthful innocence.

Enhancing and enlarging upon the varied emotions I associate with lilacs is an unforgettable statement by T.S. Eliot from his masterpiece The Wasteland. He magically combines thoughts of beauty, life, death, and pain into one soul-shaking phrase. “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”Bring ‘em on. I welcome lilacs.

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