By contemporary definition, “herb” refers to a plant or plant part that is used for its flavor, fragrance, or medicinal properties. Today, this category includes yew, which yields the cancer-fighting drug taxol; witch hazel, which gives us the skin-soothing liquid; and calendula, whose blossoms are so useful for skin ailments. Toward the fringe of this broad classification are the watermelon seed, used for generations as medicine; corn silk, a folk treatment for urinary disorders; and the onion, which has both external and internal medicinal uses. Likewise, the lilac, like the fragrant rose and the inveterate lavender, must have its place as a garden herb.
I’ve always been taken with the fragrance of old-fashioned lilacs. Although I scarcely remember the bountifully blossomed bush which grew at the edge of my parents’ garden when I was only three (and which was eaten by a neighbor’s runaway milk goat), I remember vividly the fragrance of its blooms.
The smell of lilacs can catapult my mind into outer space like no other fragrance I have experienced. I’ve been caught more than once standing in the middle of a lilac bush in full bloom, hypnotized by the smell, oblivious to the rest of the world.
I once tried to capture the fragrance of lilacs. I was in the first grade of a one-room country school and in love with a petite, button-nosed second-grader named Jeanie. At recess, we would take our lunch boxes and climb the low limbs of a stately old Osage orange tree. We’d talk about how nice the tree was to have such gentle “arms” that touched the ground for us to climb on. We watched birds feed their young and fed bits of our peanut butter sandwiches to the curious squirrels.
Jeanie was my girl. We were together every recess and lunch period. I picked her a bouquet of pink-striped spring beauties, and together we picked bunches of Johnny-jump-ups.
It was in the Osage orange while the lilacs were in bloom that I told Jeanie I wanted to marry her. I told her I’d buy her a gabardine cloth dress suit like my mother had, and we’d be married. (I had no idea what gabardine was then, but I remember liking the way the word jumped across my tongue.)
Jeanie gazed at me with her gentle brown eyes and said, “I’ll have to think about it,” then looked away. That was the first time I’d ever considered that the answer might be anything other than “Yes.” In fact, I hadn’t even actually asked her, I had told her I wanted to marry her. With my fluttering young heart in hand, I vowed to myself to find something special that would put fate on my side.
During school that afternoon, as I was gazing out the window, it came to me: lilacs. Of course! If lilacs had even a fraction of the effect on Jeanie that they had on me, I could easily win her heart.
I looked up “perfume” in the old encyclopedia and asked a fifth-grader to help me with the big words. And there I found my answer: boil flowers in distilled water, catch the steam in a cloth, and bottle it. There was more—about preservatives, oils, chemicals, and secret formulas—but I ignored it. I had the essence of how perfume could be made.
I worked on my project at home over the weekend. I had no distilled water (nor did I know what it was), but I thought that pure rainwater, cleansed by passing through the charcoal filters of our cistern, surely would be just as good. I got a small pan of cistern water, and with Mom’s permission, heated it on the burner of our new electric stove. As the water came to a rolling boil, I added the double handful of lilac blossoms I had picked, still on their stems but with the leaves removed.
With the heat lowered and Mom watching, I very carefully covered the pan with a clean white dish towel to soak up the pure perfume. Hours passed in my mind, but the cloth didn’t get wet enough to wring out. Mom finally grew impatient (as did I), and I removed the pan to the table. I was not about to give up my quest for the magic liquid, so I dipped the cloth into the fragrant water and wrung out enough to fill the tiny perfume bottle I had salvaged and washed. I was gratefully relieved that the bottled water smelled strongly of lilac.
I could already imagine Jeanie, dressed in exotic cloth, holding my hand and looking at me in awe. And the following Monday, in the Osage orange, I gave Jeanie my prize bottle. I didn’t even wait until our lunch boxes were open.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn the tide in my direction. I suspect she never believed that I really made the perfume in that bottle. And perhaps she didn’t respond to the smell of lilacs the way I do.
Each spring when the lilacs bloom, I remember the neighbor’s goat that ate our lilac bush, our rainwater cistern, first grade, gabardine, and Jeanie. The fragrance was captured in my memory more permanently than in the bottle. And Jeanie, if you happen to be reading this—I really did make that perfume for you! v
Jim Long lives and dispenses the ingredients for a fragrant life at Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.