Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

The Folklore of My Yard: Lilac

I saw "I AM," the new documentary yesterday, and found it a delightful and inspiring break from the gloom currently shadowing my life and our nation. While walking home down the alley, I saw foxglove was greening up, and I nibbled on a violet, which was sweet, like a grape or berry. Every place is indeed magical in some way. Folklore helps us access this magic. While people often want to visit faraway sacred or mysterious sites, one's own home is also mysterious and magical, if one really looks deeply. I decided to look at the place where I currently live and see what folklore can reveal about it.

The budburst of lilacs is beginning now here in town. The national Phenological Network records the cycle of natural events across the nation: When the first robins are seen, when the lilacs bloom, when the geese fly south for the winter. It was about a month ago when I heard my first robin and meadowlark singing in the valley. This recording of phenology, natural events and their cycles, has a special connection to the global climate change as well. Montana lilacs were the first real focus of these efforts, which began almost fifty years ago:

"The first extensive USA phenological observation networks began in the late 1950s with a series of (U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA) regional agricultural experiment station projects, designed to employ phenology to characterize seasonal weather patterns and improve predictions of crop yield.... J. M. Caprio at Montana State University began the first of these projects in 1956, and it eventually included around 2500 volunteer observers distributed throughout 12 Western states.... Common purple lilac plants (Syringa vulgaris) were observed initially..." (

Lilac bushes are everywhere in Helena's historic south central district. They were introduced here by the pioneers in the late 1800s from the Midwest and East. You can often see lilac bushes growing out in the middle of nowhere, and they invariably mark the location of a previous homestead, long since vanished. Lilac was one of the first yard plants I learned about as a child. We used to pick them and put them in jars in the kitchen for their beauty and perfume. Their sweet scent is the mark of late May-early June here. There are many in the yard, both white and purple types, ancient and gnarled. Now some miscellany about the lilac-


Because many immigrants came not only from the East but Europe as well, they brought tales of lilac folklore that increased its appeal. Lilacs are often associated with luck, and anyone who finds a white lilac blossom with five petals was considered to be especially lucky. Some expand that to any color of lilac. On the other hand-

"In some parts of England, it is considered unlucky to bring lilac, especially white lilac, into the house. The purple and red varieties are usually less feared, but even they are sometimes excluded from house-decorations as bringers of misfortune. A few months before these words were written (1960), an Oxford florist strongly advised a customer not to buy white lilac for a friend in hospital, on the grounds that many people thought it foretold death if brought indoors. He did not know why this should be so, only that it was quite commonly believed. In fact it is almost certainly due to the widespread association of death and misfortune with 'drowsy-scented' flowers, and also with those which are white. An interesting detail about the lilac tradition is that, unlike that connected with white may and meadowsweet which is very general, it is found only in some English districts, especially in the midland counties, and is quite unknown elsewhere. It is lucky to find a five-petalled lilac blossom of any colour." (The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, by Edwin Radford).



"The genus name Syringa is derived from Greek syrinx meaning a hollow tube or pipe, from French lilac "shrub of genus Syringa with mauve flowers," from Spanish lilac, from Arabic lilak, from Persian lilak, variant of nilak "bluish," from nil "indigo", and refers to the broad pith in the shoots in some species, easily hollowed out to make reed pipes and flutes in early history. ...A pale purple colour is generally known as lilac after the flower." ("Syringa,"

"The genus name Syringa is after Syrinx, an Arcadian virgin nymph of Artemis who looked like Artemis in appearance & manner. Originally Syrinx was not the genius of the lilac bush that today bares her name, but of hollow reeds that grow in marshes & along riverbanks. Just such hollow reeds were bound together to make the original panpipes, which were called syrinx. In time the nymph Syrinx became identified as the genius of any plant the stems of which could be used to make tubes. Thus the German engraving from the early 1600s, as shown on this page, depicts Pan clinging not to reeds, but to the stump of a tree. Although lilac twigs are not hollow, they have a soft inner pulp that was easily drilled out, so that lilac limbs were traditionally hollowed out to make flutes or pipestems.... In the Dionysiaca, grief-stricken Pan's first song of grief upon the syrinx was to the goddess Cythereia, i.e., Aphrodite." (, "lilac")

"The wood of lilac is close-grained, diffuse-porous, extremely hard and one of the densest in Europe. The sapwood is typically cream-coloured and the heartwood has various shades of brown and purple. Lilac wood has traditionally been used for engraving, musical instruments, knife handles etc. When drying, the wood has a tendency to be encurved as a twisted material, and to split into narrow sticks. The wood of Common Lilac is even harder than for example that of Syringa josikaea." (, "Syringa")



"In later folk belief, the lilac was associated with love. To test whether the object of one's affection returned such feelings, five lilac petals were to be eaten in succession; if it could be done without a petal getting stuck in the throat, then one's lover was true. Or a well-budded cutting of a lilac limb should be brought into the house late in autumn; if it can be induced to bloom by Christmas day, then one's intended marriage was vouchsafed a good match." (, "lilac")

In the Victorian Era's "Language of Flowers," lilacs symbolize love. Purple lilacs represent the first emotion of love, and white lilacs represent youthful innocence and memories." (, "Language of flowers")



"At the same time, lilacs became associated with death, & is one of the most common trees encountered in old cemeteries. The association may have come about because sweetly-scented flowers were used to surround the dead while they lay in state, to mask the odor of decaying flesh. Also, pale purple was once considered the color of mourning garments, the same as wearing black." (, "lilac")

"The lilac bush was also believed to grow in Hades, & had associations of the night. The common name Lilac is from the Persian Lila, a common girls' name meaning "Evening," apropos of dark purple lilacs being the color of night. It is also more or less the same meaning as Lilith, "Night," & lilac extract is an old ingredient in spell-casting among voudon practitioners, so that lilac's associations with the Night -- from the wedding bed to cemeteries -- are numerous." (, "lilac")

"Along the Welsh Border, lilac trees are said to mourn if any of their kind are cut down, and to be flowerless in the following year." (The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, by Edwin Radford).



"In addition to being a widely used garden plant, a tea can be made from the leaves, flowers and thinner branches of Syringa vulgaris (common lilac), and common white lilac, which has a floral flavor. Some claim that this tea has shown some signs that it may produce a light euphoria higher amounts (3+ cups of strongly brewed tea), but claims of this are relatively unverified and there is no scientific backing to report such claims. Also some find the white varieties of common lilac to have a sweeter and more pleasurable flavor, and both varieties (white and purple) seem to produce more palatable tea with more flowers and little leaves." (, "Syringa")

"Ethnobotanical uses for the plant have been fever reducer, malaria treatment, perfume, tonic, and homeopathy." (, "budburst" Species 70)

"Lilacs steeped in warm spring water for 30 minutes, strained, bottled and refrigerated) is used on the face as a tonic and healing spritz for some facial afflictions. ...The leaves and the fruit is used and the properties are as an anti-periodic, febrifuge and tonic. Hilda Leyel in Compassionate Herbs says . . . “The Lilac tree appears in an inventory made by Cromwell at Norwich and was probably introduced in Henry VIII's reign. It has been grown as a flowering shrub for many centuries. In medicine it has been used successfully in the treatment of malaria and in American is given as a vermifuge.” (, "lilac")

"Lilacs are used by herbalists as a treatment for parasitic intestinal worms in humans. The lilac may cause the worms to die and be expelled from the body. The scent and potency of lilac doesn't fade in hot water, so lilac tea was traditionally used as a tonic. Lilac tonic is used to reduce fever as well as to prevent recurring attacks of disease. Specifically, the lilac is used to treat kidney disease and malaria." (, "lilac aromatherapy")

"An infusion of 1 teaspoon of lilac leaves in one cup of boiling water taken two or three times daily was a very ancient alternative to quinine in the cure of malarial, fever. Quinine was the old – fashioned standby for fever and is still used to prevent and remedy malaria, but before it was discovered the most commonly used country remedies included birch, ash bark, herb bennet, olive leaves, tincture of box and sorrel or purslane juice (the cooling green leaves of purslane were also laid upon the brow). These brews were taken at the first sign of those fevers which a patient might suffer from intermittently such as malaria and the following delicious infusion, which was frequently used in an effort to reduce the racking ague of malaria, can still be used today to ease the discomfort of a raging temperature. One of the effective home remedies for fever." (, "home remedies- fever")

"Lilacs are used in aromatherapy for emotional and spiritual benefit. Purple lilacs are used to create a better emotional state by soothing and calming your nerves. Unlike the traditional purple lilac, white lilacs are used in aromatherapy to create a higher sense of sensuality. White lilacs also have the same spiritual and emotional aromatherapy benefits as purple lilacs." (, "lilac aromatherapy")

"Lilac drives away evil where it is planted or strewn. It was originally planted in New England to keep evil from the property. The fresh flowers can be placed in a haunted house to clear it. Peace; Clairvoyance; Divination; Creativity; Happiness; Harmony; Exorcism; Protection: Psychic Awareness; Reincarnation." (, "L herbs")



The Ainu of Japan used Lilac wood for the stem of the chief inao because lilac is a hard wood which does not rot easily. "Upon questioning an Ainu on this subject, he said: 'It is not wise to use any wood other than the lilac for making the stem of this kind of fetich, for in ancient times a certain man made one of cercidiphyllum [Katsura], the end of which rotted after a short time, so that it fell over. Not many months elapsed before the owner himself became weak and died. This was owing to the influence of the fetich being withdrawn. For this reason it is now known that the stem should be made of lilac only, that being the most durable wood of all. However, should he happen to be in a place where he cannot obtain lilac, he may use either willow or cercidiphyllum; but these must not be kept long, for fear they should rot away. When they become a little old, they should either be cast right away in the forest or reverently burnt upon the hearth, before they have a chance of rotting. Others should then be made in their place.' " (pp. 93-94, Early European Writings on Ainu Culture: Religion and Folklore, Vol. 1, by Kristen Refsing.)

Inao are whittled wands set up at the eastern side of Ainu lodges, holding the skulls of various animals. They were made mostly in winter to be set up in early spring, but also on other occasions. "This large cluster contains many kinds of these wands, some long and others short; some shaved upwards towards the top, others downwards towards the base, while some again are not shaved at all. When taken singly, each is called by the name inao, and when grouped together, as now mentioned, and as is shown in the accompanying illustration, they are collectively called nusa...a collection of inao or wooden wands used for religious and ceremonial purposes." (ibid.: 89-90) The shavings are the bark, shaved in part, and left attached at their ends (ibid.: 91).

Inao are set up as nusa (shrines) when erecting a new hut/lodge, when death is present, when there is a bear feast "or any other great function or solemn rite or ceremony is in progress." Nusa were placed not only near the homes but also "upon the seashore where the fishermen push off their boats when they go fishing. These are set up for the gods of the sea, and are called kema-ush inao, i.e. 'the fetish with legs.' They are so called because they are tied to stakes in the ground, which go by the name of kema, 'legs.'" (ibid: 91)

Some inao were only considered to be offerings to the deities, or charms, but others have a different 'life' to them, and are considered to be as living messengers to the gods so honored. "...Though if the truth be told, the essence of life will be found to be latent in all...These religious symbols and instruments of worship are regarded in different lights and treated in various ways by the people on varying occasions; for that they are so treated and regarded by the inhabitants of separated districts and at varying times and under certain circumstances cannot be questioned" (ibid: 92)

"Ainu fetichism may be said to consist in a belief that the possession of a thing can procure the services of a spirit which is either supposed to actually reside in it, or to be in some other mysterious way very closely connected with and allied to it. Fetiches [inao], so long as they are kept in good condition and are duly respected, are, we find, generally looked upon as continual guardians against harm from Nature, disease and evil spirits; but it is a doctrine which must never be forgotten by those who possess them, that when they decay their influence ceases. Nay, more, the life of the possessor is also supposed, in some cases, to pass away as the fetich decays." (ibid: 93)


So this first foray into the folklore of my yard has revealed many potentials for exploration of the lilacs that grow here:

1. LUCK: Five-petalled lilac flowers as good luck charms. Avoidance of bringing white lilacs into the house.

2: MUSIC/TOOLS: Hollowing out the stems/branches to then fashion into pan-pipes or flutes, or as handles or parts for other musical instruments, engraved instruments, tool handles.

3: DIVINATION: Test of a lover's worth and of a marriage's future. Sending a message to a loved one as part of the language of flowers.

4: DEATH: Planting in a cemetery and masking the odor of death. Mourning garments colored lilac. Alliance with Night and Darkness.

5. MEDICINE: Tea/medicinal use of flowers and leaves for fevers (including malaria), getting rid of parasitic worms, treating kidney ailments/disease, facial/internal tonic, anti-periodic. Aromatherapy: calming, soothing, sensuality.

6. MAGIC: Living plant keeps evil away from where it is planted. Flowers can be useful in calming/clearing haunted houses. Reported use of extract in voudoun. Used by the Ainu in making their traditional spirit shrines due to its resistance to decay.
Tags: bioregional animism, helena, lilac, magic, plants
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