Beijing, 22 April 2013

I mentioned in an earlier post that when I was young I would sometimes spend Easter with my French grandmother. One of my memories of those visits – apart from collecting coal in the cellar – is the lilac bushes in the garden in flower. Normally, we went to stay with my grandmother during the summer, when the bushes were just boring green leaves separating the proper, formal garden in front of the house from the vegetable garden. But at Easter time, these dull green bushes would come alive with pale purple and white – and would smell heavenly. They looked something like this (my grandmother’s garden was a bit of a jungle):

Lilas buissons

Lilac must also grow in the UK but I have absolutely no memory of any lilacs there. The next time lilacs crossed my radar screen was in Vienna, where it was a very popular bush all over town, from the public gardens in front of the Hofburg, the imperial palace in the centre of town:

lilacs in Vienna-3

To just humble streets nowhere in particular:

lilacs in Vienna-4

During the flowering period, my wife would arm herself with a big pair of scissors and we would go around surreptitiously snipping off a few flowering branches to have in the apartment. For a few days, the house would be filled with the wonderfully delicate scent of lilac.

So it was with pleasure that I noted during our first Spring here, down by my piece of canal about which I have written several times, some lilac bushes coming into flower. At least, they seemed to be lilacs. The scent was quite similar, and there was definitely a family resemblance if you closed your eyes a bit and cocked your head to one side. Yet there was something not quite right. The flowers didn’t look quite the same, and the leaves were definitely smaller and darker.

lilacs by the canal 001

lilacs by the canal 003

I decided to do a little bit of research (well, web-surfing really) and discovered that what was growing in my grandmother’s garden and in Vienna was the common lilac, syringa vulgaris, whereas the lilac growing here was in all likelihood the Yunnanese lilac, Syringa yunnanensis. The photos I found of the Yuannese variety showed a definite similarity:

Yunnan lilac-4

and it makes sense to have a lilac from Yunnan in Beijing.

During my research, I also learned a bit about the common lilac. It was not, as I had thought in that casually cultural-centric way we Europeans suffer from, a European flower. It was actually introduced into European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century from Ottoman gardens. That certainly makes sense since “lilac” derives from the Arabic “lilak”, which in turn derives from the Persian “nilak” meaning bluish. Since I am currently reading a history of Iran/Persia and have just finished the part covering the Arab invasion, in my mind’s eye I can see the beauty of the flower captivating Arabs when they arrived in Persia and their carrying it back with them west of the Tigris and Euphrates; later, when the Ottomans conquered the Arab lands, I can well imagine them in turn falling in love with the flower and carrying it off to their gardens. From whence it came to our European gardens and, after a pause, to the gardens in North America.

Fanciful and probably wrong, but on this day when we celebrate Earth Day a narrative I would like to believe in, seeing as it suggests a certain universal appreciation of the beauty of nature.

Happy Earth Day.


Lilac in France:
Lilac in Vienna-1:
Lilac in Vienna-2:
Lilac in Beijing: my pix
Yunnanese lilac:

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I like writing, but I’ve spent most of my life writing about things that don’t particularly interest me. Finally, as I neared the age of 60, I decided to change that. I wanted to write about things that interested me. What really interests me is beauty. So I’ve focused this blog on beautiful things. I could be writing about a formally beautiful object in a museum. But it could also be something sitting quietly on a shelf. Or it could be just a fleeting view that's caught my eye, or a momentary splash of colour-on-colour at the turn of the road. Or it could be a piece of music I've just heard. Or a piece of poetry. Or food. And I’m sure I’ve missed things. But I’ll also write about interesting things that I hear or read about. Isn't there a beauty about things pleasing to the mind? I started just writing, but my wife quickly persuaded me to include photos. I tried it and I liked it. So my posts are now a mix of words and pictures, most of which I find on the internet. What else about me? When I first started this blog, my wife and I lived in Beijing where I was head of the regional office of the UN Agency I worked for. So at the beginning I wrote a lot about things Chinese. Then we moved to Bangkok, where again I headed up my Agency's regional office. So for a period I wrote about Thailand and South-East Asia more generally. But we had lived in Austria for many years before moving to China, and anyway we both come from Europe my wife is Italian while I'm half English, half French - so I often write about things European. Now I'm retired and we've moved back to Europe, so I suppose I will be writing a lot more about the Old Continent, interspersed with posts we have gone to visit. What else? We have two grown children, who had already left the nest when we moved to China, but they still figure from time to time in my posts. I’ll let my readers figure out more about me from reading what I've written. As these readers will discover, I really like trees. So I chose a tree - an apple tree, painted by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - as my gravatar. And I chose Abellio as my name because he is the Celtic God of the apple tree. I hope you enjoy my posts. Klimt/big/Apple Tree I.jpg

4 thoughts on “LILAC ON EARTH DAY”

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