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Friday, February 22, 2002

In heaven it is always spring

Today the sun came out for the first time since I don't know when. The ground rises to the east of the house, and a morning-coffee glance through the living room window revealed a jewelled world -- heavy dew on the rumpled grass, which has grown during the last month, and on the leafless lilac bushes, and the neighbor's apple orchard. Rainbow hues glinted from the drops, and the glow suffused the house like a dream of a better world.

These lilacs, when they bloom, are of a purple-hued variety, and all the lilacs around all the houses hereabouts are of the same kind.

The originals were planted by the first family to arrive here, not long after the original pioneers in our end of the valley. They built a post-and-beam two-story house in the midst of three hundred and twenty acres of Douglas fir forest. Not old growth, interestingly enough: the Calapooya Indians, who had lived here for centuries, periodically burned over the valley floor, to keep it open for game and for defense. But these trees were certainly large, and there were a lot of them; their shade was dense, and it would be a while before this could be farm land. The men, taking stock of their situation, immediately contracted to provide firewood for all the one-room schoolhouses in the area, and fell to work with axe and crosscut. As the clearing around the house grew, the women installed plants they had brought with them: vinca, daffodils, lilacs.

The original house, and the forest that sustained it, have been gone for decades. But the plants remain; the original lilacs form a semicircle around a pile of foundation stones which were used to fill in the cellar, and the vinca and daffodils cover the area. It's part of our neighbors' pasture now.

My house was built in the year I was born, 1949, by one of the descendants of the woodcutting family, and his wife grew the lilacs that are by my front door from cuttings from the pioneer plants. All her neighbors appear to have been invited to do the same. The family across the road have a thick, healthy-looking hedge of them.

When we arrived here, the homeyard lilacs were much in need of pruning back, as the winds were scraping them against the house. I went after them with the pruners, taking out dead wood, crossed branches and the like, and noticed that suckers had formed around the root collars of the ancient bushes. These had been cut back, and had resprouted, innumerable times, and the root collars had thickened considerably, providing room for yet more suckers to form.

I was about to cut the latest ones away, when an idea came to me -- would they form roots if I hilled up earth around them? I brought a barrow-load of dirt and piled it round the bases of the lilacs, and went on to other tasks.

Weeks -- or it must have been months -- later, I remembered my experiment and went to the lilacs with a trowel to see how the suckers were coming along. Sure enough, they had formed roots. Cutting the main stems away from the parent, I was able to replant a number of them into number ten tomato cans in the potting shed/greenhouse, where they stayed until dormancy the following winter. I remembered them just in time, before bud break, and set them out at the corners of the house. They have all done well, and I am filled with admiration at the hardiness and adaptability of these pioneers of the valley. I hope our own transplanting here will be as successful.

The lilac has long been hybridized and there are now well over 500 varieties. For best results, plant them in fall, or no later than February, with some compost and bone meal in the hole, which should be spacious enough not to crowd the roots. Top dress biannually with compost, but remember to add some pine or fir needles, or other acid material, from time to time. If you feel that the acidity isn't benefiting the plant enough, you can use a trick that works well for rhododendrons and azaleas: add apple parings to the top dressing and stick a few rusty nails (not galvanized) underneath.

The iron seems to react with the apple skins in some way the shrubs find appealing. Pay attention to watering for the first year. After that, the lilac should be fairly hardy, and you should avoid letting the ground around an established lilac get too soggy. A vigorous plant can sustain plenty of blooms. If it seems poorly, pick them off so that more of the strength can go to building new roots. The bloom season is relatively short, but while it lasts, the scent carried on the breeze to you as you dig in the herb border will become one of your favorites, and provide a strong argument that in Heaven it is always early spring.

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