Lilac plants are best bought in bloom so that you can pick the one that has a fragrance that aligns with your memory of lilacs from your past. This is 'Pink Mist.'

THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: Scents and sensibility

Memories that come with sight pale in comparison to the way the simple scent of an old ‘Lincoln’ lilac transports me back to the early years of my childhood.

I am often a bit envious of my beagle, Henry, who has the ability to sidle up to a plant and inhale its history. When I watch Henry put his nose to a plant, I see that his sense of smell is the olfactory equivalent of reading. As he inhales, the scents not only unlock the present moment, but his heightened sense of smell transports him through the history of that spot. If I look into his eyes, I can see him envisioning that location a month earlier as the sweet cool earth unthawed, a week ago when rabbits grazed on the weeds that were now at his feet, as well as in the present as the lilac buds are breaking into bloom and emitting their fragrance. I also imagine that the scents he inhales connect him to related scents he has experienced elsewhere in his brief life on earth.

My trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden a few weeks, just as the lilacs came into bloom, seemed to imply that I too might have some ability to use my nose to access remembrance of scents past. I am accustomed to memories that can come with sight. The sight of daffodils or clematis in flower can connect me back to the summer cottages of my youth or to my old garden in Connecticut, but memories that come with sight pale in comparison to the way the simple scent of an old ‘President Lincoln’ lilac transports me back to the early years of my childhood.
‘President Lincoln’ has beautiful flowers and a scent that calls to mind the hedges of our childhood cottage on the Michiana border.

The intensity of the fragrance, sweetly floral with a hint of citrus, immediately brought my parents to mind. Our cottage had a hedge of lilacs that bounded two sides of the property and its flowers always seemed to welcome us in the spring as we headed up to the lake to get the house ready for the summer ahead. The scent wafting in the windows of our car would often greet us before we even came into sight of the house or the hedge.

My mom would cut dozens of stems of lilacs and fill bowls and vases throughout the bungalow that was our lake house, filling it with their scent. No one ever pointed out to her that she could have simply opened the windows and let the scent drift in from the hedge; these old vulgaris types of lilacs were so floriferous there was no reason not to bring their color and scent indoors.

This smell was the first of a series of scents that would fill our cottage in the months to come. It would be supplanted by the smell of peach pies in the oven, the fragrance of parsley and basil from the garden sitting on the kitchen counter awaiting use, the funny earthy odor of tomatoes that seems so in contrast with their taste, and the smell of fresh buttered corn steaming and sweet as it would come to the table. By fall, as the smells of cinnamon, apples and autumn squash took over the kitchen, thoughts of the lilacs would have faded into the background, their less-than-interesting foliage now serving as a backdrop for the season that had since unfolded. The purple of the lilacs was supplanted in late summer by the dusky grapes on an arbor that sat in front of them, which in turn would be brought into the house to be made into jelly and juice, with an occasional attempt at winemaking.

Every few years, the lilacs would take a little more effort as we cut them back and pruned out dead and diseased wood and crossing branches, as well as any branches that exceeded the bounds of the space we allotted them. This would usually take place a few weeks into June, after their blooms had gone by. I remember my parents working all day to get the hedges in shape. If the weather had warmed up sufficiently, we might take our first swim of the season at day’s end, soaking in the spring-fed lake that had first lured us here.

There are species of lilacs that also have attractive foliage, and they are worth adding to the garden, but for me, scent is the primary quality I am looking for in a lilac. Syringa pinnatafolia has attractive cut foliage and fragrant, if smaller, blooms.

When I was very little, I would help clear away the brush but as the years passed, I would get to do some of the pruning myself, using a pair of old wooden loppers that now reside in my mother’s garage back in Chicago. I am not a particularly sentimental person, but these loppers are the one possession that I want of my parents to remember them when my mother is no longer with us. Their smooth ash handles have the patina of a well-loved heirloom, and their steel cutters are still as sharp as my mother’s mind. Her mind and the blades clearly share the longevity of a quality product.

We sold our cottage to my cousins a few years after my father passed away, as my siblings had places of their own and I lived far away so keeping it seemed impractical. One year, my cousins had us up for a family reunion and we were dismayed to see that they had taken down the lilacs, claiming they took so much work to maintain. We were shocked by the many things they had removed—the raspberries along the back of the vegetable garden from which we often foraged an afternoon snack were gone and the vegetable garden itself had reverted back to lawn, and not to the lawn of our youth with buttercups and wood violets amongst the grass, but to a rather suburban sward of green covering the site from end to end. I could see that my mother was visibly unsettled by their approach, one that felt seasonless and lacking in connection to the place itself. When we left, she said that she saw very little reason to go back—the memories of what she had loved about our time there were better than the realities of the present day. I shared her feelings. The place we had visited did not align with my recollections of the past and nothing there could help transport me back to that time.

‘Old Glory’ has a classic lilac scent and calls to mind the gardens of our grandmothers.

But as I stood inhaling the scent of lilac after lilac variety at the botanic garden, I knew that my parents and I were a lot more like Henry than we were like my cousins. The very scent of what we had known could transport us back and allow us to hold onto what we valued and treasured. While we no longer have our cottage, we have our memories and when the lilacs at my mother’s home come into bloom in the days ahead, I know that she will still be able to connect with all that she has loved and cherished and, like Henry, she will be able to transcend time to connect to her memories and those that she has created for her children. Scent, as enduring as lilac plants themselves, is like love, it lives on in the hearts and minds of those who truly cherish it—and it can be found miles away or just outside one’s bedroom window.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.