Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lilac Time

Lilacs are blooming outside my kitchen window, and while dandelions may be the first sign that spring is really here, lilacs are what tell my heart that the long winter is finally over.
Last year they froze just as they were bursting out, and I didn't get a single cutting for the house. But we won't mention that sadness again, will we? The lilacs are blooming, and it is spring. Anyone can see them, smell them, and feel their soul swell, their limbs stretch and strengthen, their own faces turn up to the sunshine.
But aside from their incredible sweet smell and the exuberance of their abundant blooms, lilacs are useful plants, worthy of their own corner in the edible landscape.
Make lilac sugar: This is the simplest thing to do, and flavored sugars are always a fancy little treat. Pick some lilac blossoms, clean and not buggy, and sprinkle them in a jar of white sugar, making a few layers, then cap the jar and forget about it for a couple of weeks. For a fancy tea party make little open face sandwiches with a sprinkle of lilac sugar and a few blossoms chopped into cream cheese, and a few petals for garnish, or use the sugar to make shortbread cookies. Heat up some milk, add vanilla and a dollop of whipped cream sweetened with lilac sugar for a little treat to surprise your little ones.
Lilac Syrup: Heat one cup of sugar and one cup of water to a boil, then stir in 1 cup of lilac blossoms and drop heat to low, cook 12 minutes, and strain the syrup into a jar. Keep in the fridge or freezer. Try this over crushed ice with sparkling water, or use the syrup as a pound cake glaze or ice cream.
You can make jelly, but I've never done it. My children only recently decide that they like jams and jellies, though, so maybe this year....
Lilac Muffins with lilac petals tossed in sugar and added to your favorite muffin recipe.
Here's a recipe for a spring trifle with lilac infused pastry cream that looks amazing. I do love trifle- after all, what's better than cake? Cake covered in pudding, of course!
Some people say lilacs keep bad spirits from entering the door if they're growing near. Mine is right by the back door, so I guess we're safe. Thank goodness!
People used to chew the bark and leaves to help sore mouths, and the leaves can be made into a medicinal tea to help with fevers, ridding the body of worms, and can be used as a general restorative tonic. I haven't used lilacs this way, but I love knowing how every little thing CAN be used!
You can of course get essential oil from lilacs, and make dye from the flowers (green!), leaves (green or brown), and the twigs (yellow-orange).
There was even a story on NPR about phenology (tracking natural phenomena) and using lilacs to track climate change.
Oddly this delightful, sweet flower has a sad reputation. Think of Walt Whitman's famous poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd which combines lilacs with Abraham Lincoln's death.
There's an old proverb about girls who wear lilacs never marrying, and a sad story about an Englishman who ruined an innocent girl laying colorful lilacs on her grave. In the morning they were white, as if they too had bled to death.
Most famously, in Greek Mythology, Syrinx (Syringa), a follower of Artemis, and known for her chastity was pursued by Pan through the forest, til she ran to the river's edge and begged for help from the river nymphs, who transformed her into a bush with hollow reeds that made a haunting sound when the Pan's frustrated breath blew across them. He cut the reeds and made the first set of pan pipes.
Maybe lilacs don't have the happiest ending in story, but they'll always signal the happy end of winter to me. And my old friend, Walt Whitman, has a lesser known but lovely poem that sums it up just right: Warble for Lilac Time.


Lisa Russell said...

Oh my goodness, we are going to do that right now. When I breathe in the smell of lilacs, I could hyperventilate because they smell so good I don't want to stop inhaling. Thank you so much for sharing this- This is what we will do today.

Jennifer said...

Um, wow!? Didn't know you could do anything with lilacs, especially eat them. I am so glad you posted all of this great info. I'm on it - especially the lilac sugar and jelly.

Quiet-Mom said...

Ok, yum! I just looked out my window and saw our beautiful lilac bushes in bloom - so glad I found this post!