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: