• Maureen Little

We'll Gather Lilacs ...

We celebrated the anniversary of VE days two days ago. I am of a generation whose parents served in the Second World War – my Dad was a Sergeant in the 12th Parachute Battalion and my Mum served in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). Neither of them spoke much about the War but I do remember my Mum humming a tune which she said reminded her of how lucky they were to have survived those dark days.

And the tune? It was ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’, written by Ivor Novello for the stage show Perchance to Dream which was performed at the Hippodrome Theatre in London from 1945 to 1948. Part of the chorus goes like this:

We’ll gather lilacs in the spring again,

And walk together down an English lane

Until our hearts have learned to sing again,

When you come home once more.’

And, of course, we had a lilac bush in the garden. Although it was only in bloom for a relatively short period of time, its conical panicles of fragrant flowers would fill practically the whole garden with delicious scent. The rest of the summer it provided an almost nondescript six-foot (1.8m) green backdrop for the perennials that performed in front of it.

The bush that Mum grew was undoubtedly the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris). It grew particularly well in our south-west facing garden with its chalky soil because lilac does best in a sunny spot with alkaline, free-draining conditions. Mum would give it a bit a trim soon after it flowered if she thought it was getting out of hand; otherwise, apart from giving it a mulch of home-made compost each spring, she just left it to its own devices.

Back then, Mum and nearly all our neighbours had a lilac in the front garden although it wasn't always that popular. It's fallen in and out of fashion since its introduction to the UK from South Eastern Europe in the 1500s. It became really popular in the late 19th Century, however, when a certain Frenchman, M. Lemoine, got his hands on it and introduced some 150 cultivars, some of which are still with us today. S. vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’, for example, which produces pure white double flowers is available from no less than 42 nurseries listed in the RHS Plant Finder.

You’ll also find that the mauve-pink double flowered S. vulgaris ‘Belle de Nancy’, and the pale pink ‘Michel Buchner’ are widely available too. If you fancy another established variety, try the purple ‘Ruhm von Horstenstein’, or if you would rather try out a relatively recent introduction there is the double, blue-lilac variety ‘Nadezhda’ from Russia.

Just a quick word about whether lilac is any good for pollinators, and bees in particular. I have read a few comments about its attractiveness to pollinators but despite the heavenly fragrance I have yet to see multitudes of our buzzy friends make a bee-line for it. It’s possible that the corolla tube is too narrow and long for a bee’s proboscis to reach any nectar pooling at the bottom of it, in which case it is more suited to butterflies. If you have a lilac in your garden, I’d be interested to know what insects visit it – please let me know via the comments.

In the meantime, I’ll take over where Mum left off and hum a chorus of ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’.