“I just want my plants to go to a loving home,” the 97-year-old lady told Paulina Hartsoe Carroll as she carefully handed her a slip from a lilac bush.
The small cutting, wrapped in damp towels, was taken from the base of a lilac bush that came to America just prior to World War I, around 1913.
Carroll, a Master Gardener, definitely loves plants. Her yard in Crewe is a showplace of color and fragrance, especially in the spring. She was thrilled to be entrusted with the lilac — and even more intrigued to hear its story.
The elderly lady went on, “My family was very close and all lived together until things got so tense in my homeland of Russia. We could feel the war coming on. My parents and grandmother packed our few belongings along with precious plant pieces from grandparents and great-grandparents, plus a couple of brooches to barter with and got on a ship bound for America.
“The ship ride was very hard. We hit bad storms. We were cold and hungry all the time in the dark that stunk like rotten potatoes. Several children got seasick and many people died from no fresh air and being packed in so tight. I was scared that the ghosts of the dead people who were wrapped up and pushed over the side would come back to curse the ship.
“Then we saw Lady Freedom (the Statue of Liberty) and everyone started crying and hugging. I had just had my 50th birthday. We stayed in New York for a while with the men trying to get work. We finally settled in Virginia when I was teenager. I got to marrying age at 14 (she went on to have 11 children and lost three in childbirth; only six made it to adulthood).
“My husband died in 2000 and all my kids in America are gone. The grandkids stopped coming by. Now I have to go to a nursing home and I can’t take my plants. This lilac cutting is from my most cherished bush — it’s the last thing I had from my homeland. It was massive, over 20 feet tall. The blooms were a pretty soft lavender with just a touch of violet purple and the scent was unlike any lilac I ever smelled.”
Carroll recalled, “This sweet lady reached out to me through a mutual friend who knew that I loved working with plants and helping those in need. I cried when she told me the reason she needed me.”
Carroll nurtured the stem, helping it develop a good root system and then decided to share it and the story behind it with her fellow Master Gardeners. The more than 100-year-old lilac bush will be featured at the Master Gardener Plant Sale the first Saturday in May.
This lilac cutting, so carefully brought across from Russia, is like many plants and seeds carried in baggage and in travelers’ clothing in the holds of ships to start in the New World. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) originated in the colder regions of eastern Europe and was viewed as a harbinger of spring. It was first noticed in America around 1750 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thomas Jefferson prized the plant and grew several different color varieties on the grounds of Monticello.
Lilacs are so hardy that they often outlive the households where they are planted. They are in the same plant family as olives and tolerate drought conditions, as well as heavy pruning. While lilacs are generally resistant to diseases, the leaves may show whitish patches of powdery mildew fungus. Planting the bush in full sun (at least six hours a day) will help deter mildew and produce the largest flowers. The planting area or large pot should have rich, well-draining neutral pH soil that is amended with compost.
Each spring, adding layers of compost and mulch will retain moisture around the roots and discourage weeds. Lilacs don’t like wet feet, but should be watered if summer rainfall is less than an inch per week. Right after blooming is finished any suckers around the base can be removed and the bush should be pruned to shape and to remove any dead canes. The lilac will bloom the following year on older woody stems, so only a third of these should be removed at a time.
In our Zone 7 area, lilacs are champs at surviving the winter. In fact, most varieties are cold tolerant to well below freezing. They actually need cold weather to ensure abundant reblooming. They should be protected from icy winds and benefit from mulch to prevent frost heaving the roots out of the ground. Lilacs in containers should not be brought indoors.
Master Gardeners are known for their fondness for all growing things and for volunteering in the community.
The annual Plant Sale is planned from 7:30 a.m. to noon May 6 in front of the Halifax library, where plants of all types will be offered for sale. Like this lilac bush, most of the plants will have been donated by generous gardeners in the area.