Monday, May 13, 2013

A Bouquet of Lilac Flowers

My heart has a special corner in it for Cornus florida, the flowering dogwood. When I was a little girl, we had a flowering dogwood in the front yard and its exuberant white flowers charmed me each spring.

In high school, I learned that dogwoods are one of the few opposite-branching trees and shrubs (part of the MAD CAP HORSE* crowd.)

During undergrad, I learned and then taught that the dogwood's white flowers are not petals at all, but modified leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are the tiny structures in the center of the bracts. Also, the wood was used for golf clubs - back when golf clubs were made of real wood. (Watch the YouTube video of Dr. Leopold** teaching Cornus florida - "Many regard it as the most beautiful of all our native trees.")

Finally, during a two-month stint at Overlook Farm, we sang the song "Wagon Wheel" at least once a day. On breaks from farm chores, I'd wander the forests and town streets looking for "a bouquet of dogwood flowers" but to no avail.

Sadly, flowering dogwoods are not so common in New England as in the mid-Atlantic and do not bloom in our yard this time of year, so I must substitute for another charming spring-flowering tree: the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris).

There are many reasons to recommend the lilac as my new favorite spring flower: It's the New Hampshire state flower and typically blooms here just in time for Mother's Day. The wood is streaked with purple. Our lilac hedge may be almost 100 years old and a pair of birds nest in it each spring. Mountains of pale purple, fragrant flowers are just now starting to open their petals. While I don't know of any song about picking a bouquet of lilac flowers, I'm hopeful that someone will write that song one day.

Really, could anything be more lovely?
I hope this brightens your day. Happy Mothers' Day!

Click to enlarge - you'll be glad you did.

*MAD CAP HORSE refers to Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Caprifoliaceae and Horse Chestnut - this is a helpful mnemonic to remember the small number of trees and shrubs that have opposite branching. Caprifoliaceae is a family of shrubs and small trees, including viburnums, elderberry and honeysuckle among others.

** Dr. Don Leopold's teaching and mentoring was hugely influential in my college education, teaching approach and ever-deepening appreciation for trees. You can learn the key defining characteristics of 100+ North American tree species by watching the SUNY-ESF YouTube Channel. If you are interested in native plants not just trees, I recommend his book Native Plants of the Northeast.