top of page
  • By Francis X. Sculley

In Celebration of the Lilac

The True Story of the New Hampshire State Flower

The small New Hampshire town of Lisbon held its annual Lilac Festival May 24, paying tribute to New Hampshire's state flower. In honor of the occasion, Governor John Sununu—who appeared in the event's annual parade with his wife, Nancy—proclaimed the day as Lilac Time Day in New Hampshire. Floats, banjos and marching bands all heralded the glory of the beautiful flower, which over the years has come to symbolize spring in New Hampshire.

A member of the olive family—honest to goodness—the lilac is part of America's pioneering history. George Washington writes of planting a "clump of laylocks" at Mount Vernon on March 3, 1785.

New Hampshire marks the place in America where the lilac was first successfully grown. In 1695, cuttings of the strikingly handsome Persian lilac (Syringa persica) were brought to Portsmouth from Persia and presented to Governor John Wentworth. The shrub flourished, producing a myriad of flowers. A half century later, cuttings from the original tree were presented to Governor Benning Wentworth. Today, descendant shrubs still flourish on the site of the original plantings. Due to the generosity of Wentworth, he became the father of lilac planting in America.

Everyone who was anyone in colonial America received cuttings from the Wentworth plantings. The recipients, in turn, favored their relatives and friends with young shrubs or cuttings. By the time of the Revolution, the lilac was known in all 13 colonies.

The purple Persian lilac is only one of several color blooms, however. Add to the familiar washed violet variety white, blue, yellow and even rose tinted. There are actually 28 different species of lilacs, which have been crossed and hybridized to produce double flowers in striking colors, a few that are variegated.

It all started 25 centuries ago, when the giant purple lilac, which grew wild in rampant abundance in China’s Kansu province, was carried over the caravan route to Persia atop the swaying backs of Bactrian camels. Shipped along with lilac shrubs were peach stones, ginger root, spices, medicated rhubarb, musk and silks.

The lilacs were sold in the bazaars and planted in the walled gardens of the Emirs and Caliphs. The Persians named the plant 'nilak,' which has been corrupted to 'lilac.' The hollowed stems were used as pipe stems, hence the scientific name 'syringa,' which means 'pipe.' The purple lilac has always been known erroneously as the Persian lilac, though it grows in the wilds of China to this day. Such are the foibles of history.

Persian lilacs were brought to France in 1620, and to England shortly thereafter. The Persian lilac has never done as well in Europe as it has in America.

The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) was discovered growing wild in the Balkans by the Turks. Its exquisite fragrance and delicate violet color appealed to them, and within a few years, the plant was growing throughout Islam. In 1550, Ogier Busbecque, in the service of the Holy Roman Empire, saw vulgaris growing in the Sultan's garden and was able to procure cuttings. It was transported to Bohemia, where it was warmly welcomed. Charles de Lecluse, a French botanist, traveled through Turkey and the Levant in search of lilacs, and it was through his efforts that the common lilac spread so rapidly. Able to withstand colder temperatures and extremely variable changes better than the Persian lilac, vulgaris was welcomed in British America. The white variety of this species was planted around the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, Va., as early as 1699, but it was not until 1729 that the fragrant flower of the turbulent Balkans was known in all the colonies. Syringa persica still reigned supreme in all of the colonies.

 White lilacs were indeed rare in America during the 1700s, and it was not until Robert Fortune, a Scottish plant collector, discovered the handsome wedding-gown-white Syringa oblata growing wild in China in 1856, that a stable white variety was known. Fortune was the discoverer of the forsythia, also a member of the olive family. In 1904, E.H. Arnold, of the Arnold Aboretum in Cambridge, Mass., discovered the striking Syringa affinis, also a white variety. It has become extremely popular in our southern states.

French horticulturist and hybridizer Victor Lemione, of Nancy, France, developed hybrids of such intense beauty as to almost defy description, crossing the common lilac of the Balkans with Syringa alba. Lavish double and semi-double pendants of almost a foot in length and several inches wide, in almost every color of the spectrum, make the so-called French lilac very popular. One variety, known as La 13elle du Nancy, is a striking pink.

Isabelle Preston, a prominent Canadian botanist, has developed a number of varieties that bloom until August and are able to withstand colder temperatures. Syringa prestonae is popular among all of America's French-Canadian citizens.

Tree lilacs have never become popular in the United States, due to the carrion-like odor of the handsome white flowers and the fact that they die so shabbily. There are, however, a few fine specimens of Syringa amuriensis japonica still to be found in this country.

Plant peddlers of the 18th and 19th century, who traveled hundreds of miles in a season, selling lilacs and rose bushes, had more to do with the distribution of lilacs in America than any other factor. Following the Revolution, many of the soldiers from New Hampshire who had been part of the Sullivan expedition into Six Nation country became smitten with the area and migrated there. They brought lilac shrubs and cuttings with them, thus introducing the species to a new area.

In 1826, John Melvin and 14 New Hampshirites migrated to the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. They named their settlement Bradford, after their home back in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire settlers planted the lilac that summer, and by the time of the area's great oil boom (the world's first billion dollar oil field), the Persian lilac was growing throughout the eastern states.

The lilac, which glorifies and perfumes this land every spring has attracted attention everywhere it goes. Rochester, N.Y., holds a mammoth lilac festival every May, which is attended by thousands. It is one of the most lavish displays of lilacs on this planet.

There has been some agitation toward an annual statewide New Hampshire lilac festival, to celebrate the state's official flower, but so far only tiny Lisbon holds such an event. There has even been some talk of planting lilac shrubs along the borders of that state's highways or in the islands. A monumental undertaking, but far from impossible.

In the meantime, the flower that is New Hampshire’s own has become second only to the rose in the hearts of all Americans. Authoress Louisa May Alcott wrote a lovely story entitled, "Under the Lilacs." Walt Whitman used the flower to dedicate everlasting remembrance to the martyred Abraham Lincoln. And, following World War I, Hollywood filmed a movie entitled, "Lilac Time." It was a sensation.

It is a long trail from the era of Confucious to the days of Star Wars, but the lilac has made it all the way.

Editor's Note: Lisbon, N.H., is still hosting its annual Lilac Festival and it appears that a few other New Hampshire towns have joined them including Rochester and Portsmouth.


bottom of page