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An Ode: A History of Lilacs in Canada

The History of Lilacs in Canada


[The guest post that was planned for today has been postponed. Instead, here is a meditation on a history that is very personal to me. Special thanks to Pete Anderson for his help in researching this post, and for providing the photograph below.]


Spring is a very special time of year for me. For the most part, this has to do with lilacs, my favourite flowers. When I was a little girl, my elderly neighbour, Mr. Sullivan, had the most amazing lilac bush. He had planted several seedlings together when he first bought the house in the 1950s, so that by the 1980s, they had grown together into this massive tree. Every May, since this was Montreal, the tree would explode into bloom. This was my favourite time of the year, and one I looked forward to for months. The tree was next to my second-story bedroom window, so whenever my window was open, the scent of lilacs permeated my room. Mr. Sullivan would also bring over armfuls of lilac flowers for my family, and I always begged to be allowed to put a bouquet of them in my room. Over the years, lilacs have come to represent spring, joy, and wonder for me.

So, when I spotted a blooming lilac bush during a run the other day, I got to wondering about the history of lilacs, particularly in Canada. My husband was dubious; after all, who really cares about the history of a particular flower, even if it is really pretty? But, as I’ve discovered with my research, there is more to this flower than meets the eye.


The Roots

The history of the lilac, like so many other plants, is transnational. Lilacs are actually native to Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, though the most common and popular form in North America, the common lilac (S. vulgaris) is actually from the Balkans. The word “lilac,” entered into English in the 17th century, by way of French, Spanish, and (possibly) Arabic translations of the Persian word “līlak,” meaning “bluish.” It appears that lilacs traveled along trade routes all over Asia and Europe. [1] The first mention of “lelacke” trees in print in English was in 1625. [2]


Reshaping Landscapes

While no one would deny that lilacs are beautiful flowers (unless they have no soul), there is actually a sinister history behind these lovely plants. They are one of several European species that was introduced into North America deliberately by European settlers. It may surprise you to learn that there are no species of lilacs that are native to this continent.  Every lilac bush you’ve ever seen is a descendent of one of those first few brought over here in a deliberate attempt to colonize North America.

Lilac study

“Study of Iris Solomon’s Seal & Liliac[sic].” Alexander Henderson, Sandford Fleming Collection, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1936-272 NPC

At this point, you may be thinking that I connect almost everything to colonialism in North America. And you’d be right. Colonization is a pernicious and all-encompassing force, so common and taken-for-granted that it has been normalized. Part of the work of doing history in a responsible and ethical fashion is drawing attention to this fact. Does this mean we should slash and burn all of the lilac bushes? Absolutely not! But it does mean that we need to remember a) where they came from and how they got here and b) why we assume that they are a North American plant.

So what do lilacs have to do with colonization? They, along with hundreds of other European plant and animal species helped in the colonization of North America by physically reshaping the landscape. What does this mean? Part of the work of colonization depends upon transforming one place into another. In many ways, it is similar to the process whereby a small city grows into a large city (as is happening right now in Richmond, BC).  For instance, familiar buildings and landmarks are torn down and replaced, like your neighbourhood restaurant being replaced by a new office building. Agricultural areas may be transformed into residential neighbourhoods. And your local fishing village becomes a tourist destination. Within a short span of time, the landscape that you may have grown up with is virtually unrecognizable.

With respect to North America, colonization required the transformation of Indigenous lands into European settlements. This happens in two ways: mentally and physically. Mental transformations can be as simple as name changes (like changing Hochelaga into Montreal), or as complicated as surveying and mapmaking.

Expert Tip: One of the most significant ways this was accomplished was by declaring North America as “terra nullias,” a Latin term that means, effectively, an uninhabited wildness that was there for the taking. A great source for learning more about how this works is Sabina Trimble’s article in BC Studies, “Storying Swílcha: Place-making and Power at a Stó:lõ Landmark.” I would also recommend Chelsea Vowel’s blog post, Rights? What rights?, and Joanne Hammond’s Twitter essay on the weaponization of history.

Physical transformations usually involve changing or altering the landscape and ecology of a particular location. This can be done by clearing trees to build farms and fields, building bridges, dams, and dykes, and introducing new plant and animal species. The end result of this process was that, within the span of a few generations, the pre-contact North American landscape was virtually unrecognizable. [4]  Lilac bushes were part of this process. Unlike some other introduced species, lilacs do not propagate easily in the wild. That means that whenever you encounter a lilac bush in the countryside, you are likely standing in the middle of an abandoned homested.[5] These solitary plants stand sentry long after the human inhabitants have gone.


Lilacs in Canadian History

Lilacs in Topley

“Lilac Blooms, Oakville, Ont.,” William James Topley, Topley Studio, Library and Archives Canada, PA-009694

There are no records of who brought lilacs to North America. While there is some disagreement about when exactly they became established in Canada,  it appears that by the middle of the eighteenth-century, they were a recognizable presence. For instance, both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington recorded planting them in their records. [3] However, early textual references to lilacs in Canada are few and far between. It’s unclear whether this is because lilacs were extremely common or very unusual.

Expert Tip: The lack of references in historical documents does not necessarily mean that something did not exist. People then, like today, take certain information for granted, and so don’t record things that were ordinary at the time. It’s very possible that lilacs were simply so common that they become, in effect, background noise. The same is true today, for example, for maple trees. When was the last time you mentioned them in an email?

One of the earliest Canadian references to lilacs comes from a collection of unpublished letters by Torontonian Elizabeth Russell, who described having a “white laylock” in her garden in 1816.[6] Another early reference appeared in the January 1839 edition of The Literary Garland, a monthly literary magazine published out of Montreal.  In essay an entitled “Beauties of Creation,” by an unknown author, lilacs serve as a symbol of pastoral joy:

When we sit at an open window in the still of the afternoon, and look out upon the fragrant lilacs, the blossoming trees, the clambering honeysuckles, the long green grass, half burying the bashful violet from our view, and hear the singing of the joyous birds, and the roar of the city afar off, we can hardly persuade ourself [sic] that there is such a strife and bickering among the inhabitants of this fair earth.[7]

But wherever they are found, they can speak to multiple histories. While I don’t have time to talk about every since reference to lilacs in Canadian history, (though that would be a fascinating exercise), here are three examples of what we can learn by looking for lilacs.


Lilacs and Penitentiary Reform

Though lilacs were not frequently mentioned in documents in the early nineteenth century, they do make a fascinating appearance  in one of the first investigations on prison reform.  in 1849, Father of Confederation George Brown was asked to investigate the living conditions at one of the first penitentiaries in Canadian history, the famous Kingston Penitentiary (previously home to, among others, Russell Williams, Paul Bernardo and Michael Rafferty). Among other things, this report uncovered the flogging of children for spurious offences (like laughing), complaints about the management of the Penitentiary, as well as some unusually large expenditures.The topic of lilacs came up during the questioning of James Hopkirk, Esq., Secretary of the Board of Inspectors. Hopkirk was asked to detail all of his financial transactions with the Warden, and he testified that

[he] got a few cuttings of shrubs from the Warden’s garden, but not a large supply; they were principally taken from what had been originally [his] own shrubs; they consisted of lilacs, snow-berries, roses, snowball trees, gooseberries, and currants – all cuttings; [he] had given the Warden two cart loads of shrubs in 1844, which were planted in his garden.[8]

There was apparently some confusion about whether or not Hopkirk had fully paid his debt to the Penitentiary, and whether or not these cuttings counted as expense. While this might seem like useless information, the listing and description of transactions provides an important window into the daily life of penitentiary officials, and illustrates the vast inequalities between the of inmates, guards, inspectors, and wardens; while inmates endured corporal punishment and inadequate food, penitentiary inspectors were spending their time tending to flower gardens.


Visions of Lilacs

By the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, lilacs had fully entered into the Canadian landscape and imagination as symbols of beauty and innocence. [9] Though they serve no practical purpose, since they are strictly ornamental plants (though I suppose you could eat them if you really wanted to), lilacs were regularly planted on farms all across this country. Their significance was such that they even made appearances in Canadian literature. You may remember this passage from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables,

Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning, her eyes glistening with delight. Oh, wasn’t it beautiful? Wasn’t it a lovely place? Suppose she wasn’t really going to stay here! She would imagine she was. There was scope for imagination here. A huge cherry-tree grew outside, so close that its boughs tapped against the house, and it was so thick-set with blossoms that hardly a leaf was to be seen. On both sides of the house was a big orchard, one of apple-trees and one of cherry-trees, also showered over with blossoms; and their grass was all sprinkled with dandelions. In the garden below were lilac-trees purple with flowers, and their dizzily sweet fragrance drifted up to the window on the morning wind.[11]

(We also know that there were lilacs on Montgomery’s father’s farm. You can see a picture of them here.)

Lilacs were also mentioned by another famous Canadian author,  noted suffragette and Famous Five member, Nellie McClung. Her mother, Letitia McCurdy Mooney, planted groves of lilac trees between 1859 and 1880 on their farm at Chatsworth. [10] They clearly made an impression on McClung, since they are referenced later in her writing. They are mentioned in her best known book, In Times Like TheseIn the chapter titled “As a Man Thinketh,” an essay on the virtues of farming and farm labour, she critiques renters in particular (whom she distinguishes from “true” farmers, for not appreciating the true rewards of labour, saying,

The people to whom the farm is rented do not care anything about the lilac or raspberry bushes – there is no money in them. All they care about is wheat – they have to pay the rent and they want to make money. They have the wheat lust, so the lilacs bloom or not as they feel disposed.[17]

I particularly like another reference she made to lilacs, in a column she wrote for the Victoria Daily Times on May 3, 1941, on springtime on the Pacific coast:

Just now we are in that lovely time when the cherry blossoms on the grass like confetti make every walk look like the church steps on a Wednesday in June. Tulips edge the paths, and through the blossoming apple trees we see the deep blue of the sea. Everywhere flowers are blooming, the stately iris, purple, white and light blue — wallflowers along the roads in shades of yellow and brown with their almond perfume — lilacs are in bloom, and the broom along the roads frame each picture in gold.


Lilacs: A Canadian Flower?

The history of lilacs in Canada is also a history of innovation and women in science. The Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa was an international centre for the development of lilac varieties. By 1899, The Central Experimental Farm’s lilac collection included over fifty different varieties from places like Persia, Hungary, China, and Japan. Sir William Saunders, the first director of the research branch of the Central Experimental Farm, commented that lilacs were deservedly popular because “They are easily grown and the beauty and fragrance of their flowers so freely produced in the early spring, and the richness of their foliage throughout the season.”[12]

The first professional female hybridist in Canada, Isabella Preston, worked with lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm, beginning in the 1920 at the age of 39. [13] She crossed wild and domesticated varieties to produce a specifically late-blooming Canada-hardy lilac, S. ×prestoniae, that could withstand our harsh winters, and was even accepted at Kew Gardens in London for testing. (Fun fact: Her lilac cultivars were named largely after Shakespearian heroines). She continued her work until her retirement in 1946, having developed over 200 individual hybrids. [14] Her work was later complimented by that of Dr. Frank Skinner of Roblin, Manitoba, who began developing lilacs for the Canadian prairie shortly after Preston. Both also introduced additional lilac hybrids, including the beautiful pink Miss Canada lilac.[15]  Lilacs continue to be a feature at the Central Experimental Farm to this day.[16]

Lilacs in Ontario

The lilacs in Ottawa on April 28th, 2017 (photo courtesy of Pete Anderson. Please do not repost without permission).

The lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm also tie us  back to settler colonialism.  As Peter Anderson has argued in his fantastic article, “Comparing Nineteenth and Twenty-first Century Ecological Imaginaries at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm,” The Farm is one of several agricultural research stations all across this country, which are designed to serve the Canadian agricultural industry. And however much scientists like to argue that science is impartial and objective, the reality is that all of science is a reflection of human desires and wills. While I won’t go into too much detail, especially since I’ve already discussed this article in a previous Best New Articles post, the gardens of the Central Experimental Farm are imaginations of particular landscapes, supposedly natural environments that are actively shaped by human hands. In the case of the Dominion Aboretum, this garden represented an imagined prairie landscape under settler colonialism, with trees and plants as agents of colonialism. The efforts that Preston put into the creation of a cultivar of lilac that would flourish specifically in the cold Canadian climate suggests her believe that lilacs, an introduced species from Europe, were, and should continue to be, a “natural” part of the Canadian landscape.



Evanescent and ephemeral, lilacs have been a part of the Canadian landscape for generations. An introduced species, they are a tangible legacy of colonization and settlement. But they are also signposts for lost homes, symbols of innocence, naiveté, and wonder, and landmarks of scientific experimentation. And, as such, they are a metaphor for the contradictory and complex nature of Canadian’s past – unwritten histories in the form of a flower.

A picture of our local lilac bush from last year.

A picture of our local lilac bush from last year.

I spent many happy hours as a little girl under the lilac tree with Mr. Sullivan, sipping lemonade, talking about my dreams, playing card games (Mr. Sullivan’s favourites were Hearts and Crazy 8s), and learning how to grow a garden. As I grew older, I didn’t visit Mr. Sullivan and his wife quite as often. I was self-absorbed and careless the way many teenagers are. But every spring, I knew I could count on the lilac tree and Mr. Sullivan.

In my early twenties, Mr. Sullivan and his wife decided to move to Calgary to be nearer to their grandchildren. They were getting older and wanted to spend their remaining time with their family. I was devastated to lose my surrogate grandparents. But before he left, Mr. Sullivan gave me several seedlings from his plant. We weren’t sure if the new owners of his house would preserve the tree, but he wanted to make sure that something of it survived. And I think he knew just how much that tree meant to me. He died not long afterwards, but those little seedlings have flourished and now they watch over my niece and nephew as they play in the backyard.


I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! Don’t forget to check back on Sunday for our regular new Canadian History Roundup. Until then, don’t forget to get outside and appreciate the spring flowers while they’re still here!



[1] http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/lilacs/lilachistgenus.htm

[2] “lilac, n.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press.

[3] http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/lilacs/lilachistgenus.htm

[4] Colin Coates. The Metamorphoses Of Landscape And Community In Early Quebec (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000): 13-31 and J. Michael Thomas, “A Place Called Pennask: Fly-Fishing and Colonialism as a British Columbia Lake.” BC Studies no. 133 (Spring 2002): 69-98.

[5] Helen Ross Skinner, “With a Lilac by the Door: Some Research into Early Gardens in Ontario,” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 15, no. 4, (1983): 35.

[6] Elizabeth Russell, unpublished letters (Toronto: Canadian History Department, Metropolitan Toronto Library.) Cited in Skinner, “With a Lilac by the Door: Some Research into Early Gardens in Ontario,” 35.

[7] “Beauties of Creation,” The Literary Garland 1, no. 2 (Jan. 1839): 66.

[8] Canada, Legislative Assembly, Appendix BBBBB to Journals, 3rd Parliament, 2nd Sess, vol 8, (May 30, 1849). “Case of Guard Watt – Evidence from James Hopkirk, Esq., by Mr. Smith.”

[9] “Flower Shrubs in Winter,” The Canadian Horticulturist 18, no. 12 (Dec. 1895): 440.

[10] http://search-bcarchives.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/nellie-mooney-mcclungs-parents-place-mooney-homestead-one-mile-south-of-chatsworth-lilac-trees-were-planted-by-nellies-mother-between-1859-and-1880

[11] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. (Boston: L.C. Page& Co, 1908). Project Gutenberg, E-Book, https://archive.org/details/anneofgreengable00045gut (April 29, 2016).

[12] “Lilacs,” The Canadian Horticulturist, 22, no. 5 (May 1899): 169-173.

[13] http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/isabella-preston/

[14] https://www.uoguelph.ca/oac/140faces/isabella-preston

[15] http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/lilacs/lilachistgenus.htm

[16] http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/lilacs/

[16] Nellie McClung, “As A Man Thinketh,” In Times Like These (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1915), 184-185.

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  1. veronica strong-boag

    May 2, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    a lovely piece! thanks!

  2. Carmen Nielson

    May 5, 2017 at 11:29 am

    I really enjoyed this, Andrea. Thanks!

  3. What a lovely and engaging piece – on my favourite of all flowers! Incredible research too. Thank you

  4. Something I wish I’d written!

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