Down to Earth: Lilac Perfume

| April/May 1993

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.)

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