Monday, June 6, 2011

In flagrante indelicato: Lilacs, a.k.a. the fallacy of sensitive tosh

Lilacs.  Some of you are already well past your season, others can still smell the peak in your nose, even if the actual peak was already days ago.

Here, we're a couple of weeks past the peak of the old-fashioneds, and while Miss Kim is still pumping out a honking snootful of scent today, I have a feeling that this is like when a singer pushes out the last air from the bottom of the diaphragm.  It's big, it's blowsy, but it is no longer fresh, and a little hollow at the heart.

Old fashioned lilac, pumping out the volume 2011
Since Miss Kim is pumping out her final glory, I found myself out gathering armfuls of blooms for the second time this season this morning.  This is a big milestone for me; in the first place, I am conservative when it comes to harvesting blooms.  Not just because I have a sensitive side that feels bad about cutting them, but because I love seeing them in their environment.  I plant with an eye toward how the "composition" looks in situ; in movie terms, it's a botanical mise en scene.  Heck, I'll even spend time deciding if I let a weed have a few days as part of the composition, if texture/color/height fill in the scene nicely and it won't go all Godzilla and take over the area.

But there is a saying about lilacs, which is true:  They like the lopping.  Which is to say, trimming encourages fresh wood (and therefore fresh blooms), keeps the plant looking fully and less "leggy," and also helps manage height/width if that at all matters.  It's not that "they're asking for it"--that saying has always bothered me for a number of reasons--but they do respond well to it.  And, in fact, they thrive as a result.

Furthermore, lilacs stems headed for the vase need a little, well, abuse.  Smashing.  A simple end cut will not allow the woody stems to take up adequate water, and they'll wilt within 24 hours.  Sometimes you can almost watch the depressing withering as if time lapse was accelerated in front of your real time eyes.  I conveniently forgot that with the first round of trimmings.  They were droopy by nightfall.  This time I did not make that error.

My tool of choice was a railroad stake.  Plenty of heft, and the head end provides a pseudo-cutting edge, so that in one fell strike you can smash-slash.  2-3" of gashes up from the bottom of each, and you are good to go.

It's not that they ask for it.  But if you are going to do the trimming, and want them to hang out for a while in the vase, you do need to alter them.  With violent measures.  Because you need to expose cells, and soften tenacious structured material.

This, my friends, is the "wan" lilac.

It is a deceptive shrub.  That fragrance that is so "pretty," that visits but once a year, can actually nearly strangle you.  Our Miss Kim, for example, is right outside a lower floor bathroom window.  Which in some ways was good planning by the previous owner.  Because it offers a lovely screen 3 out of 4 seasons of the year, and is often snow covered enough for privacy effect in the fourth.  Because it is visually attractive.  And because in other areas of the house, and on the back patio, catching a waft can be a pleasant thing.

But if you are in that front bathroom?  On a hot day?  This is a situation the word "cloying" serves well.  Some might even say "suffocating."

This is a clear example of when "fresh air" is not the same as "air heavy with the fragrance of {lilac/fill in your own big stonkin' flower}."


So when the topic of En Passant comes up, I am always careful to thank Olivia Giacobetti.  She knew that the best way to experience a lilac was in passing, not in situ.  Certainly not stuck in nostrilo.  And too much of a good thing is, well, too much, so there's that cucumber and that bread and that ghost of Apres L'Ondee.

It's perfect.  As if it were my neighbor growing the lilacs, baking the bread, me slicing the cucumber, me discovering I still had remnants of yesterday's Apres L'Ondee somewhere on me.  (Alas, that that could actually happen in real life...)

I can't wear En Passant when the lilacs are at peak, incidentally.  Too much input.  I am too busy processing and managing the heavy full-throated single relentless note of the lilacs.  Which must be some kind of siren song, come to think of it; all of this noise, and still I gather it into bundles and bring it into my house.

My favorite times to wear En Passant are early spring, when it seems (as it so often does) that it is having trouble revving up, and in the fall, for a kind of nostalgia.  Plus the occasional nostalgic occasion or mood throughout the year.

There are times when the hologram, the reproduction, is just the thing.

Hundreds of tiny trumpets on my countertops and carpeting my floor in the area I put the stems into a vase.  Because, yes, despite the volume on the olfactory noise, these flowers have peaked, and every handling shakes loose some of the florets.  But they needed to be gathered.

You smash them, they last longer.

They disintegrate, but shall return.

They aren't delicate.  And they aren't dead.

You conveniently tend to forget how they are capable of choking you.

As it turns out, it may be that longer term relationships with them are best conducted via stand-ins.

So pretty, they are.

image of old-fashioned lilac, author's own
V.S. Naipaul's opinions, his own
Olivia Giacobetti's genius, her own

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