Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"The flowers do fade" -- Visiting the lilacs at the UW Arboretum

Spring isn't just about green. It's about showy displays of white, delicate shades of pink, pale mauve, violet, and purple. It's about dogwood, flowering crab trees, cherry blossoms, and wisteria. But above all it's about lilacs: the scent, the color, the gaudy profusion of beautiful clusters of flowers that bloom and die within a very short time.

Growing up in Madison back when you could buy an ice cream soda at Rennebohm's for 25 cents and only a few of your neighbors had a televison set, the month of May was a time for my family to celebrate three events, all of which seemed to arrive within a few days of one another (and sometimes all on the same day): Mothers' Day, my father's birthday, and the arrival of the lilac flowers in the UW Arboretum.

My maternal grandmother loved lilac flowers, but believed their beauty was too ethereal to merit all the attention she would have to lavish on the bushes that bore them if she planted them near her house. So every spring, for many years, we visited the lilacs at the Arboretum. Back then, it was possible to drive through the Arboretum, from Mills Street to Seminole Highway. My recollections of those visits include being part of a long line of automobiles winding slowly toward the fragrant blooms, inhaling the scented air, then watching through the rear window as their delicate purple beauty disappeared into the distance. I can't recall being able to stop, get out of the car, and linger a bit longer.

Although I paid many visits to the Arboretum in the decades that followed, I gradually forgot about the lilacs. In the past several weeks, as I watched spring's flowery arrival, something made me remember the lilacs. Then, the long rainy period we've been experiencing made me despair. This was one journey into the past that might have to be taken next year.

Monday, a little after 4 p.m., the sun began to play peekaboo, so I altered my course and drove to visit the Arboretum's Longenecker Gardens to see if there were any lilacs still in flower. And I was not the only person in Madison exploring the gardens late on that rainy afternoon.

And yes, dear reader, there were lilacs, battered by the rain, but still alive with vibrant color. At least I though they were lilacs. Quelle horreur! Had I forgotten what they looked like? Was I seeing cousins by the dozens? Or were all these gorgeous purple flowers really lilacs? I tried thrusting my nose into some blooms, but the delicate scent of the flowers was masked by dampness. So I roamed about, shooting some photos, but trying not to alienate myself from these evanescent beauties by always interposing a lens between myself and them.

I think these next three photos are all of lilacs. But if they're not, I'm sure the usual suspects will send me emails to correct my errors.

Had I but world enough, and time, I would visit the Arboretum again today at 7 p.m. to accept its invitation to "Inhale the fragrance and enjoy the beauty and diversity of the Garden’s fine collection of lilacs." It would be comforting to have a horticulture professional assure me that what I've seen and photographed and identified as lilacs were indeed lilacs.

The lilacs won't last much longer, so if you have the time, hie on over to the Arboretum tonight to see them. You may not be able to gather them, but as Robert Herrick reminds us:

Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.


D Strand said...

People tell me that I have a great memory of past events, but I had all but forgotten those trips that we all made to the magnificent and world famous arboretum as kids. Thanks for reminding us with such great narrative, poems, and pictures.
I am not really into flowers and poetry, but I am into Madison and it was great! I have something to compare it to out here in Baltimore as a friend of mine dragged me up to a famous arboretum in Delaware called Longwood Gardens, I believe. It was nice but Madison's wins!!

nancy ellis said...

I've lived in California longer than I did Wisconsin (32 years now).
Recently I received a lovely floral arrangement from a friend in Huntington Beach.
The arrangement included a lilac.

Although wonderful in color and didn't remind me of HOME.

Our backyard at 315 N. Paterson St. "backed up" to Norris Court.

They had wonderful lilac trees outside our back dooor and the FRAGRANCE was great.

Not California lilacs..wimpy lilacs here!

D Strand said...

I think that I remember those lilacs in your backyard, too! We always hung out at Charmley's which was just a few feet from your house and Norris Court. There weren't any real high fences and such in those days and we could see and smell your lilacs, Nancy, if I can recall!
My cousin does it best, living in Madison in the summer and Florida in the winter.