The lilac is an ancient shrub, however it is not a native New Hampshire plant.
It was first introduced to the Europeans about mid-1500, brought from Turkey to Austria. It is native to Iraq and Iran. The popularity of the lilac spread quickly and King Henry VII is said to have had “six lelac trees” growing in his gardens.
The deep purple lilac was first grown by James Sutherland in the Edinburgh medicinal garden in 1683 and was called the “Scotch Lilac.” In France it first grew in the Chateau de Marly gardens in 1808 and became known as “Lilas de Marly.”
The selection of the Purple Lilac as New Hampshire’s state flower did not happen easily. Reportedly in 1919 two members of the House of Representatives were each promoting their own favorite. Judge Fred Jones was promoting the Purple Lilac, while John Smith was promoting the Apple Blossom.
As benign as this topic might seem, apparently the debate about it was heated. The Boston Herald, dated 2 January 1921 states: “Judge Fred A. Jones of Lebanon…has been active in politics for some years but his real claim to fame rests upon the adoption of the purple lilac as the state flower. The next speaker [of the General Court] fathered the purple lilac proposition in the last Legislature when the state threatened to be disgraced by the adoption of the apple blossom, which, through its connection with cider, would have been an insult to every prohibition from the Canadian border to the Portsmouth cold storage plants.”
Even in those days, the lottery system was popular, but the flower name drawn didn’t please either of them. Judge Jones then lobbied the House for a re-vote, with the Purple Lilac finally winning, and also in the Senate.
Lilacs were brought by the very earliest settlers to the colonies. Two plantings can boast of having the oldest living lilacs in North America. The first is the Governor Wentworth Lilacs planted in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. These are among the oldest, having been planted around 1750–and still growing strongly today. They are “massive old trees, gnarled and twisted with the centuries.”
Another source states that equally old lilacs exist in Mackinac Island, Michigan, brought there and planted by French Jesuit missionaries working in the area as early as 1650.
Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson spoke about planting or transplanting lilacs on their properties, however none of the original plantings exist today. [Although one source states that the ones growing now at Mont Vernon are the original].
Rochester, New Hampshire is called “The Lilac City.” [Editors note: Several people have asked me about this name, and as far as I can tell the Rochester NH Chamber of Commerce bequeathed the title to the city around 1975, perhaps as a way of refreshing the city’s image or maybe just borrowing Rochester New York’s nickname designated in 1948. Coincidentally in 1973 a Rochester NH construction company built Lilac City Estates for adult mobile home living.]
Imported exotic plants now constitute a full 30% of the Northeast’s flora, including not only our own state flower the lilac, but other state flowers, such as Vermont’s red clover and New York’s rose. There are about 28 species of lilac.
Partial Poem: LILACS
by Lida C. Tullock, formerly of Portsmouth NH, later a resident of Washington DC.
Tis thus, when in the early spring,
Mid growing grass and birds that sing,
The lilac blooms anew;
Its subtle perfume steeps my soul
And from my past the curtains roll
Presenting to my view.
“Oh, Lilacs! common you may be,
But always beautiful to me!
For do you not recall
Those halcyon days of early youth,
When life seemed naught but hope and truth,
And love illumined all.
–NH Governor’s Lilac and Wildflower Commission (they have a yearly photo contest
– Book: Growing Lilacs, by Henry M. Cathey, Washington D.C., 1977, from Hathi Trust
[article first written April 11, 2007, updated 21 May 2016]