Where Lilacs Still Bloom

Jane Kirkpatrick has worked hard all her life, given generously to the community, and turned herself into a writer of warm, “feel-good” novels as she moved into retirement. Choosing lilac breeding as the donée of one of these novels is unexpected and rather moving.

Lilacs bloom for fairly short periods in the spring, emitting gusts of the sweetest perfume imaginable. It is hardly surprising that the lilac and its perfume are considered romantic. Before one even realizes it, the blossom has peaked and faded. This mirrors the transience of human life and love, while the fragrance endows the plant with some feminine overtones.

Two principal species of lilac underpin all the modern cultivars: the Turkish Syringa vulgaris and the Chinese S. oblata. This does not exhaust the total list of lilac species, but few of the others have played any significant role in Western hybridizing. Although there were about ninety cultivars available before 1900, the story really starts with the Lemoine lilacs in the 1870s. Right away, an oft-overlooked woman is at center stage: Madame Lemoine herself.

In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war, instigated by the aggressive Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was at its height. Food was desperately short, life was grim, and the Lemoines decided to take their minds off their troubles by breeding new varieties of lilac. The lilac flower is small and hard to work with. Victor Lemoine’s sight was failing and his hands were slightly unsteady.

Madame Lemoine was younger. She climbed on the ladders with paintbrush and tweezers and patiently pried each flower open. In the following year, they planted the meager seven new seeds that resulted from her work. Before they finished with lilacs, the Lemoines, assisted by their son Emile, had bred 129 new cultivars. Almost all of them were commercially viable and rapidly taken up by nurseries all over the world.

Other women entered the lilac story. Isabella Preston, an English immigrant to Ottawa in Canada, had an irresistible need to breed new flowers and left a series of lilacs that remains unsurpassed. Alice Harding was an American who devoted herself to peonies and lilac; her gentle influence was so profound that Emile Lemoine named one of his lilac cultivars for her in 1925. Susan Delano McKelvey, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s cousins, wrote an excellent book about lilac history in 1928.

Jane Kirkpatrick focuses her novel on Hulda Klager—an actual person and not a fictional character—who began using Lemoine hybrids in 1905 to create new lilacs. She had much the same drive that led Lemoine and so many others to continue their work in the face of great obstacles and challenges.

Hulda Klager was a farmer’s wife in Woodland, Washington, who was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1865 as a child of two. Against the challenges of family tragedies, periodic floods that nearly destroyed her garden, and a community that had strong opinions on the role of a farmer’s wife, Klager succeeded in producing a selection of beautiful new lilacs. She also created a romantic country garden filled with lilacs and countless other plants, some of her own breeding, and opened the garden to the public in the last decades of her life. After her death in 1960, the Hulda Klager Lilac Society was created to keep her legacy alive. Now “Lilac Days” at the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens is an annual event attended by thousands of visitors each year.

As a horticultural historian, I might have approached the story of Hulda Klager from the point of view of the lilac, but Jane Kirkpatrick looked at it from the human angle. We should be grateful to Kirkpatrick for her recognition that Hulda Klager’s story was important and for the fact that she has brought it to our attention. To learn more about Klager’s work and her garden, visit www.lilacgardens.com.

Judith Taylor, horticultural historian
San Francisco, California