After the yellows and whites of the flowers around St Leonard’s in March and April, May brings out two shrubs noted for the display of purple flowers. The colours of lilac and wisteria are abundant this month – bringing delight to passers-by, and to the bees starting to seek nectar in these warmer months.
Neither plant is native to this country, but they were introduced at different times. The lilac came first, with records of it being grown in Britain in the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. It wasn’t widely known – Shakespeare doesn’t mention it, despite the bard’s extensive knowledge of plants and flowers. It is related to the olive, and the similarity is evident if you compare the wood of the two trees. Like the olive, the lilac is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and it was travellers to modern-day Turkey who brought the first plants to western Europe. (Just imagine the challenge of bringing a plant back from there by sailing ship, horse-drawn vehicle and horseback!). There are lilacs all over the neighbourhood, in numerous shades from white through to very deep purple, many derived from the breeding programme of an energetic French nurseryman of the 19th century. White lilacs – in Victorian flower language – symbolise innocence. Brides from just after the second world war found white lilac a convenient and inexpensive flower for their bouquets at a time when the flower trade was recovering.
Lilac’s botanical name is Syringa, and that name comes from Greek mythology. There was a beautiful nymph named Syringa. Pan, the god of the forests and fields, was taken by her beauty and chased Syringa through the forest. She was so frightened by Pan's affections, that Syringa escaped by turning herself into an aromatic bush. Pan couldn’t find her, but found the hollow stems of the bush suitable for making himself pan-pipes.
Lilac flowers can be used in cookery, to make jellies and syrups, or even dipped in batter and deep fried. They will have fewer calories than a deep-fried chocolate bar, but I haven’t encountered a fast-food outlet selling them.
Wisterias came to our gardens in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most writers say that the plant was named after a German botanist, Caspar Wistar, despite the difference in spelling. A minority of books call the plant wistaria in consequence. The first wisterias came from North America, and then the great plant hunters of the nineteenth century collected examples of the same family from Japan and China. So the plants that we see around us come from both hemispheres, though the oriental shrubs are more common. Over the last two centuries of cultivation, we have come to welcome the shrub as a beautiful climber for arches, balconies, or to run along walls and fences. The wisteria tunnel in Pinces Gardens, in St Thomas, has been a feature for nearly 150 years. Unlike the plants in Flanders and Swann’s song, Misalliance, wisterias may twine clockwise or anticlockwise. The plant can get so heavy that it damages its supporting structure – and if it climbs a tree, can strangle that!
Although a wisteria comes from the family of beans, and the plant produces pods, it is not advisable to try to eat any part of the plant. So enjoy the sight of these splendid shrubs, and allow the bees their harvest from the flowers.
Published in the Neighbourhood News, May-June 2017