Notes from the Apothecary: Lilac
Lilac is a flowering shrub in the olive family, Oleaceae, cultivated in many parts of the world including all across Europe and North America. Robust spikes of delicate yet strongly scented flowers come in colours ranging from purples and pinks through to blues and whites.
I’ve been writing Notes from the Apothecary for over 6 years now, and some months I struggle to think of a plant that’s magical, seasonal, and of interest to our readers worldwide. I had no such struggle this month, thanks to the wonderful fragrance that stopped me in my tracks as I was out playing with my 3-year-old in the sunshine.
The unforgettable, unmistakable smell of lilac, Syringa vulgaris, wafted across our path and, like many strong smells, instantly brought back associations and memories. Above all, for me, it’s the scent of the approaching summer; a promise of long, hot days to come, even if they still seem far away right now.
The Kitchen Garden
Lilac is popular as a garden plant because the shrubs are easy enough to manage and attract a wealth of bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. The flowers smell strongest in full sun, and the blooms don’t always last long, but a few hybrid species are bred for extended or repeated blooming periods.
The lilac fragrance is sought after for soaps, perfumes, and other household and beauty items. I used to have a lovely solid perfume which was basically beeswax infused with lilac that you rubbed on your pulse points – very nice. Lilac flowers are also edible and can be candied, used to decorate confectionery, or used to infuse other items with their fragrance. Lilac sugar is a great example of this. Simply mix clean lilac blossoms with your choice of sugar in a sterile, dry jar. Of course, if there’s a chance your lilac blossoms could have been sprayed with toxic insecticides or similar, you mustn’t use them in your food.
Be aware that although Syringa vulgaris is considered non-toxic, other variants like Syringa persica, or Persian lilac, can be poisonous to pets and children.
Many different parts of the lilac plant have been used in folk medicine and traditional remedies throughout history. As often happens, modern science is now lending credence to some of those remedies.
Traditional uses for lilac include as a vermifuge, or a medicine to get rid of intestinal worms. It was also used to treat fungal infections, pain, and even asthma. Today, a better understanding of the chemical composition of lilac suggests it may have anti-inflammatory properties, which would support the use of it for some of these issues. Other modern potential uses, pending further research, include blood pressure management and, unsurprisingly, use as a fungicide.
The Witch’s Kitchen
Lilac has a rich and varied folklore, with the name Syringa linked to the easily hollowed stems of the plant. Syringa means pipe in ancient Greek, and is connected to the wood nymph Syrinx. Pan, the Greek satyr, tried to seduce Syrinx, but quite frankly she wasn’t having any of that nonsense. She hid as reed in the river, and when Pan sighed in defeat, the reeds sang with an eerie melody. He cut the reeds to take that music with him wherever he went, and thus the first Pan Pipes were created.
Lilac comes from the word for Blue in various languages, and as has been oft repeated in relation to the “roses are red, violets are blue…” poem, blue used to include anything that was purple or lilac too. Lilac and purple in colour magic can represent spirit, air, the power of the mind, the direction of East, and the planet Jupiter. Different cultures carry differing associations, so it’s always worth researching to discover what’s right for your path.
The Victorian flower meaning for lilac links to first love, or a love long past. It could have been an appropriate bloom for a widow, but also for a blossoming new passion.
There are a few references on Duchas.ie, the Irish folklore collective, stating lilac was a common plant in graveyards. Whether this is because they were associated with death or protection is unclear, but it’s interesting that there’s a mention at the Natural History Museum in London of a Hungarian stating lilac was never for gifts and only for funerals. An East Anglian superstition was that if you picked lilac, someone in your family would die.
Another mention of lilac suggests it’s bad luck to pick the lilac blossoms and bring them into the home on May Eve, but there are many prohibitions around the taking and giving of things at this liminal time.
In English folklore, at least during the 19th and 20th Century, it was considered bad luck to bring lilac into the house at any time. What a shame, considering the beautiful fragrance! Variants on this were that it was only bad luck to have the white lilac in the house, but purple blossoms were okay.
This is purely my own personal gnosis, but lilac fills that gap between Bealtaine and the Summer Solstice, finishing off spring with a heady aroma and dramatic display before Summer truly starts. It’s a time to relax, celebrate, plan ahead, and lilac reminds us to take note of the small changes, notice the tiny magical moments amongst mundanity, and appreciate that which is short lived. Don’t be afraid to blossom – and don’t be ashamed of having to rest again, afterwards.
Home and Hearth
You can use lilac blossoms for this, but if you object to bringing lilac into the home, see if you can get some lilac-fragranced oil or perfume, or make some lilac sugar or sand to keep by your altar or sacred space. Because lilac is such a unique and instantly recognised fragrance, you can use it as an aid to memory, perhaps to remind yourself of a wonderful time or something important to you. Perhaps an image of a favourite place, to help you relax into meditation or visualisation. Don’t use lilac for specific details such as remembering appointments or reminding you to do chores or tasks. Lilac fragrance is connected to nostalgia and sweeping feelings rather than critical details, so connect it gently to something meaningful but that won’t cause distress or worry.
Make sure your room is not too hot or too cold. Be comfortable, whatever that means for you. Sit with your lilac fragrance and breathe in gently with the lilac at a distance so that you can smell it clearly, but not feel overwhelmed by the fragrance. As with all fragrances, if you feel nauseous or distressed, cease using it immediately. Fragrance is intensely personal!
As you smell the lilac, take note of any positive feelings. Notice them, appreciate them, and let them happen naturally. Visualise your moment that you want to easily recall later. Picture it in your mind in the most detailed way possible. Practice this – it might be hard the first few times, but you will find it easier as you practice. Breathe normally and naturally, and let the image build in your mind. If you start to feel fatigued or annoyed that the image isn’t quite as you want it, break off and congratulate yourself for trying! You’re doing great. Try again another day. Eventually, simply the smell of the lilac will prompt that image unbidden in your mind, for a surprise moment of nostalgia and happiness, and a way to set the backdrop for visualisation and meditation techniques.
I Never Knew…
Although we usually see lilac as a shrub in gardens or parks, some lilac trees can grow over 30 feet tall!
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.