For something so commonplace, lilacs possess a remarkable power in our little pocket of paradise. The mere mention of the name tends to melt hearts and elicit emotional memories. Ask any local about lilacs, and their eyes will soften. A little smile will appear.
“Oh, yes, of course, I’ve always had lilacs in my yard,” remembers longtime resident Rhea Cipresi. “But I don’t really grow them. They’ve been here forever, and they just grow themselves.”
In a casual encounter at the grocery store, an elderly man revisits his childhood habit of walking home from school through Bellevue’s alleyways. “It was like being in a lilac tunnel,” he sighs. “No one pruned the bushes in the alleys, you know.”
Pam Ellsworth, a bank teller whose old family home boasts some of the most beautiful lilacs in the valley, looks wistful as she recalls playing under the bushes in springtime during her childhood. “They were there as far back as I can remember. Oh, they smelled so wonderful!”
A quick tour of Wood River Valley photographs reveals generations of weddings, christenings, graduations, and other important life events surrounded by a profusion of lilac sprays. Even for twenty-first-century students and alumni of The Community School, graduation memories are summoned with the scent of lilacs. Every year, the junior class gathers hundreds of lilac branches to adorn an archway under which the graduating seniors pass.
Historians can discern the birth, growth, and decline of communities across America by noting the location and age of lilac plantings. Cuttings arrived on our shores from Europe and traveled west with early pioneers. Ancient, hardy shrubs continue to mark the locations of homesteads long gone, and towns grown into major cities.
Bonnie Rowles notes that some lilacs in her town of Challis are “well over a hundred years old.” Bonnie and her husband, Don, proprietors of a bed and breakfast, became interested in promoting a lilac festival as a means of drawing more tourism to the town. Their inn, Benjamin’s at Garden Creek, houses guests in a domicile built by Don’s great-grandfather and uncle in 1896 for O. E. Penwell, a local prospector and cattle baron. The grounds nurture at least six varieties of old lilacs. According to Bonnie, the Challis area has so many varieties of lilacs that no one has taken the time to catalog them all.
Last year, the town inaugurated an annual celebration of the flowers’ glory with the first Challis Area Lilac Festival. There are many lilac festivals across the country each spring, but this one begins later than most because the altitude and cool temperatures slow the onset of the blooms. While the larger part of the country is mourning the passing of spring flower season, Challis is just entering the time when, as Bonnie says, “the whole town smells like lilacs. They’re blooming everywhere.”
On the Saturday before Memorial Day weekend, the lilac festival kicks off with a parade and a street fair. Other events include a golf tournament, a live melodrama, a photo contest, walking tours—and, in a singularly eclectic mix even for Idaho—a professional bull-riding event and a backcountry fly-in for pilots of small aircraft.
Although the Challis Area Lilac Festival is entering only its second year, local enthusiasm has been contagious. “The whole town got involved,” says Bonnie. “When I saw that an older woman in town had hired a young teen to deadhead her bushes during the festival, I knew it was working for everyone. That made it all worthwhile.”
Lilacs have been a part of the human story for such a long time, it seems they are often taken for granted—until they bloom again in spring, releasing their intoxicating scent. And, once again, we remember.
How to Properly Plant your Lilac
Tips from lilacs.com
1. Soak your bare root lilac in a bucket of
water while you
prepare the hole.
2. Locate the planting hole in a sunny, well-drained area.
3. Dig a nice wide hole 3-4 feet in diameter and 4-6 inches deeper than the height of the root
system. The wider
4. Prepare a soil mix of 50% rich garden loam, 25% compost, 25% manure, and 2 scoops
of lilac food.
5. Place 4-6 inches of your new soil mix in
the bottom of the hole.
6. Remove lilac from water, place in center of hole, and backfill firmly with your soil mix.
7. Water your lilac with your bucket of water.
8. Place a layer of bark mulch 2-3 inches deep covering planting area.