As the early spring season continues, we notice the blooming of the lilac bushes. The lilac is a delicate and highly fragrant blossom that comes in a variety of colors: white, blue, lilac, magenta, and purple. Different symbology is associated with different colors. White lilacs are associated with purity, for example, magenta with love, and purple connects with spirituality. In this way you can give them as gifts or bring them into your home and have a symbolic meaning tied to them based on their hue. You are increasing whatever you wish to draw into the space in which you are bringing the flowers.
Lilacs, though abundant in this region, are not native to New England. They were brought here from Asia and Central Europe. It just happens that our climate in spring is favorable to the cultivation of this delightful bloom. Despite their delicate appearance, lilacs are hearty and strong. They can live for centuries if cared for properly and given enough water. It is thought that this hearty, strong nature is one reason that the lilac is the state flower of New Hampshire, the live free or die state.
Lilacs are also prevalent in the literature of America. Walt Whitman and Amy Lowell, two notable poets of the last couple of centuries, used lilacs as a vehicle to express ideas through their verse. Whitman used lilacs as a way to express feelings about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln and his untimely demise. Like Lincoln the lilac is strong and hearty, keeping the Union together during the Civil War, but at the same time delicate, being struck down by the bullet of an assassin. There is something so vulnerable about the appearance of any tree or bush in full flower. It is like it is truly putting its authentic self out there on full display for public consumption and critique.
Lowell uses the lilac to talk about it being a transplant to New England and yet has taken and been made our own. It is not native, but it has been assimilating so well that it may as well be an indigenous bloom.
As she says: “You have forgotten your Eastern origins.” Lowell moves on to say “Maine knows you,//Has for years and years;//New Hampshire knows you,//And Massachusetts//And Vermont.//Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;//Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.”
In the context of the larger piece this emphasizes the place of lilacs in New England. She names each state individually, which shows how prevalent they are through the entire region.
What is the deeper meaning of the fact that lilacs are not native to New England but have been made our own? I think it truly speaks to the fact that we are, in fact, a nation of immigrants. Like the lilac bush, we are transplants. Unless you are indigenous, your people came here from somewhere else. Even the old Yankees came over back four hundred years ago from England. They are still not native to the area in the most technical sense of the term. Like the lilac and its variety of shades of blooms, there are many varieties of immigrants who come to the states to make out a life for themselves. And each person comes for their own reasons and seeking their own version of what they would like their future to be, just as each lilac bush blooms unique to its own color.
by Julie Morse
Feel free to answer any of these questions or ask your own question below!
What emotions or ideas do lilacs typically represent in literature?
How have lilacs been used in New England art and literature, and what themes do they typically represent?
How do lilacs fit into the overall landscape and ecology of New England, and what other native plants and wildlife are they associated with?