Spirea and Lilacs

TALKING TO MYSELF:  23 April 2013 -- Late yesterday afternoon, we stopped by the farm. It’s about halfway between Erlanger, where I’d spoken at the Kenton County Library earlier in the day, and our home in Lexington. We were tired and had an evening obligation, but we needed to check on things after a winter of neglect. Owen Countians, don’t hate me for confessing this, but it depresses me to go to the farm in the wintertime, and I avoid it. The cold house and gray landscape carry me to muddy Januaries and memories of loss --

No, I have to come in the springtime to remember why my family has loved this place since the beginning of time. The valley, still sporting its fall trim, preened in the sunlight. The hillsides were laced with redbud fushia, and Mother’s lilacs and Aunt Bessie’s spirea were in full bloom in cascades all around the perimeter of the farmhouse.

Mother planted both of these old-fashioned shrubs sometime around 1950, about a year after the old house burned and the new one completed. I remember that G-Aunt Bessie – her country yard was a botanical jungle – gave Mother the spirea starts.  I’m not a good enough gardener to know exactly how one gives a spirea start to someone else. I remember Friendship Bread that made the rounds when I was a young wife. It had some sort of perpetual yeast starter that we had to be careful not to kill. But I killed it, wiping out a generation or two of friendships, or at least friendship’s bread.

I think Aunt Bessie gave Mother the lilac starts too, but it’s possible Daddy bought those at Mr. Kidwell’s nursery at Sparta. Wherever they came from, I am happy to report that both the lilacs and spirea, unlike my Friendship Bread, appear to thrive on benign neglect. They’re taking over the place, healthy and robust, and blooming themselves silly.

I got to wondering how old lilacs and spirea can live to be. Are they like giant tortoises that seem to live forever? I turned to that source of all knowledge, Google, and quickly learned that the oldest lilacs in America are reported to be 250 years old! The Arnold Arboretum claims these were planted in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the home of Gov. Benning Wentworth in the 18th Century. See here:Facts About the Lilac Plant Bush | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/facts_7628486_lilac-plant-bush.html#ixzz2RKzEcDpy

Google also took me to a blog called “I Love East Hampton.” http://iloveeasthampton.blogspot.com/2011/06/spirea.htmlThis blogger has a glorious spirea bush, still going strong, that dates to about 1924 when her home was built. She goes on to explain that there are trends in landscape plants, and makes the point that shrubs can identify the era when a house was new.

Spirea is no longer trendy. Even its name sounds dorky, more like a virus than  flowering wedding lace. Lilacs have faired better, but then they had Walt Whitman to press them into the American psyche. Still, they’re absent from most  suburban lawns. But both endure and thrive and produce beauty without causing much trouble. There’s a lot to be said for not being trendy.

                             In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,

                             Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,

                             With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,

                             With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,

                             With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,

                             A sprig with its flower I break.

                                                                         – from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” – Walt Whitman