Just what are the lilacs saying?

Posted: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

David Lendrum

Landscaping in Alaska

All the world loves lilac when it blooms. Even those who don't care for it at other times of the year are carried away as the large flowering shrubs fill the air with their perfume. This year we are being treated to one of the best shows in memory as the warm, moist spring keeps everything at full-performance levels. The colors and textures of the flowers are perfect; the damage done by the harsh winter three years ago is covered by the vigorous growth of the last two seasons; and the bright green leaves are still unsullied by late season troubles.

Lilac has the ability to evoke memory: Its scents bypass the reasoning levels, stimulating the ancient portions of our brains that have to do with autonomic responses and instinctive behaviors. Willy-nilly, we are swept into our own private reveries as we pass along under and around these majestic plants. One whiff and we experience the barely remembered but totally recognizable presence of some previous time. It may be a grandparents home, or some childhood adventure, or a romantic interlude in a backyard, but no matter where or when, the trip is instantaneous.

Lilac is an ancient favorite, celebrated by art and literature in cultures all over the northern hemisphere. Persian poets wrote love poems comparing their beloved to lilac; Chinese artists painted scenes of lilac in bloom on silk; and French kings commissioned lilac parks where they could hold revels and entertainments. We see a resurgence in its popularity as new species and hybrids are made available to the gardening public.

Our old favorite, the common lilac that grows all over the downtown area, has been under attack by an insect pest. The result convinced many that there was a disease or virus that was killing them, but a closer look saw it as a pest population explosion. The lilac leaf miner has made many lilac fanciers worried about the long-term commitment given when one plants a shrub that will look good for two hundred years. The sight of the spotty leaves becoming rolled up shelters for the caterpillars caused many to shun the species.

Control is not hard, but it does require good sanitation each fall, cleaning up all the fallen leaves and burning them or sending them to the landfill. Don't compost them with your other garden debris. The eggs of the leaf miner will over-winter in the fallen leaves, hatch to become little flies and make their way back to the plant in the spring. We also apply a systemic insecticide each spring so that when the tiny pest begins to tunnel into the flesh of the leaves, it is met by a deadly cocktail.

Most gardeners with the old plants are aware of the routine and gladly care for their friends, but new plantings are more often made of other species, less vulnerable to the pest. These are the oriental forms, such as "Miss Kim," the dwarf Korean Lilac; the modern Canadian hybrids of the late-blooming lilac such as "Miss Canada"; and the August-blooming Japanese tree lilac. The most popular is the "Miss Kim,' and for good reason. She is hardy, quick sweet-smelling, and has the added advantage of turning deep burgundy red in the fall.

Driving along Egan where the bridge crosses, there is a flash of color along the street where "Miss Kim" is just about to open. That hedge of lilac around the Gold Belt Building's parking lot is perched on the edge of bloom, echoing the roar of the larger species .

The color will be more subdued, pale lavender instead of the deep purples of the most-favored French hybrid lilacs, but the number of flowers is greatly increased. The whole shrub will be covered in bloom, and the aroma will be heavenly.

The dwarf Korean lilac gets about seven or eight feet tall and just as wide - look at the bright yellow house on the corner above 12th street. There is a pair of Miss Kims there that have been planted for six years; they fill a good portion of the yard, making a very effective privacy screen; and as they flower they are truly intoxicating.

The late-blooming lilacs were popular during the gold-mining era in Juneau, and there are many older plants around. One of the nicest is up on Telephone Hill. It is about 10 feet wide and eight feet tall, and the huge flowers will nearly cover it in a few weeks. There are big ones in Lemon Creek in Seely Hall's old home, and spread throughout the Pinewood Subdivision.

Just as the mountain ashes exposed themselves during their bloom time, showing up in the most unexpected places, lilacs are doing the same this month. Keep your eyes open, and you will see them everywhere. But, even easier, be aware of the aromas, and you will be able to find them .

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