Where the Lilacs Grow

Apr 26, 2019

Here begins the story of a flower, a tale of identity, pride, and hubris.  

I. Pride

Mary Colvard and her husband retired to Nottingham, New Hampshire after living and working in New York. Driving into Rochester, she wondered:

Why are Rochester, New Hampshire and Rochester, New York both labeled The Lilac City?

The purple lilac is a charismatic spring flower, cherished for its powerful and even intoxicating fragrance, heart-shaped leaves, and flowers that bloom in cornucopia-like spires.

“I have always loved getting a bouquet of lilacs. I have a specific vase I always put the bouquet in, every year when they bloom,” said Elise Sullivan, a photographer from Durham. “I’ve just always loved them. And they grow well here.”

Last year, Sullivan and her 15-year-old son Deon won a statewide lilac photo competition. He helped scout locations for lilacs across the Seacoast where they live.

“When we first started looking for lilacs, initially he couldn’t identify a rhododendron from a lilac. They were just purple flowered things.”

But he got good, and it was a fun project. In the winning photo, Deon is leaning into the leaves, totally surrounded by delicate purple blossoms.

Elise and Deon's winning photo
Credit Elise Sullivan

“He's got his eyes closed, and he’s sniffing. I softened the picture a bit, to give kind of a feeling of being in amongst the smell of the flowers,” said Sullivan.

The lilac is New Hampshire’s state flower, but despite its charisma, this is a slightly peculiar choice. It doesn’t grow wild in the north woods: it’s a garden ornamental, original to the Balkans. In 1919, the purple lilac beat out 9 other contenders for the title of state flower, including popular, familiar New England wildflowers like the wood lily, purple aster, the goldenrod. Ultimately, the lilac even triumphed after a final stalemate with the (also introduced) apple blossom.  

“It’s an interesting story which would be quite long for me to go into,” said Guy Giunta, former landscape specialist for New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation. “It took a lot of controversy to get there, but they got there in 1919, and it was voted in.”

Guy is literally the lilac Guy.

“I’m considered a lilac nut,” said Giunta, who also made sure to point out the color of his phone (purple) and his vanity plates. “I have ‘lilac’ on two cars - ‘LILAC’ and ‘LILACS.’ But then I have an antique car, and I was able to get ‘LILAC’ on that, because it’s antique, and it’s different from your regular registration. So I still have three plates with ‘LILACS’ on them.”

 

Giunta is Chairman of the Governor’s Lilac and Wildflower Commission, a group founded in 1984 by John Sununu (the father) “to help promote the growth of lilacs and to educate the public and how to care for lilacs.”

 

Guy Giunta, holding a lilac-adorned record.
Credit Justine Paradis

The Commission also runs the lilac photo contest. As its name suggests, the Commission is particularly devoted to lilacs above other flowers. It almost seems to divide flowers into two categories: lilacs... and pretenders.

“It was formed with help of Mel Thomson, who back then was very much into lilacs. And the word was back then to ‘purple-ize’ New Hampshire’s highways. That was what the hope would be. They just loved lilacs,” said Giunta.

The special focus on the lilac has roots in New Hampshire’s special first-in-the-nation spirit. According to Guy and the Commission, before Thomas Jefferson, before George Washington at Mont Vernon, even before the Declaration of Independence, New Hampshire had lilacs.

“They came here in 1750 at the Governor's Wentworth Coolidge Mansion, which we believe was the first place that had lilacs. Now, there’s a place in Michigan who tries to say that they had them before us,” said Giunta, referring to Mackinac Island. “We have records that prove we had them since 1750. They don't have quite those records, we believe. And I can’t imagine them coming across from Europe, landing in New Hampshire, and bringing them across to Michigan.”

 

"I'm sure that we are the first ones with lilacs." Guy Giunta

But New Hampshire’s Rochester might not have been first to the title of Lilac City.  

To respond to Mary’s question about why Rochester, New York and Rochester, New Hampshire are both called Lilac City, the short answer is: no one knows.

“If you can figure it out, a lot of people would be happy over here,” said Blaine Cox, Rochester New Hampshire’s City Manager.

Cox keeps a running collection of newspaper clippings on that touch on this question of when and how Rochester, New Hampshire earned its title. Some of these clippings date back to the 1950s, but none provide a definitive answer.

Cox presented two possible theories. The first is that Helen Hussey Champlin, a gardener and woman-about-town in Rochester, was somehow responsible. She'd been active in the campaign to name the purple lilac as the state flower back in 1919.

One of the articles in Blaine Cox's collection, documenting Helen Hussey Champlin's activity in Rochester and her love of lilacs. The handwritten note dates the article to 1950.

“But there’s no indication in any of our records that she was responsible for Rochester being named the Lilac City,” said Cox. “Whether it was just a coincidence that she lived here and was active in getting it designated as the state flower is not known.”

Kathryn Grover, historian and author of Rochester, New Hampshire 1980-2010: “A Compact Little Industrial City,” believes this is the right theory. Helen and her husband also founded the Haven Hill Garden Club and imported dozens of lilacs from England. Helen might have petitioned the state to christen Rochester “Lilac City” in the 1930s.

“The other theory is that a sports writer from East Rochester named Reggie Hurd came up with the name back in the 1950’s,” said Cox. “Nobody has been able to confirm that, but a couple folks have said, ‘eh... could've!’”

“So it's a mystery to be solved.”

But there is also a third theory, presented here by Guy Giunta.

“The story that I know, and I can’t say I’m completely a hundred percent accurate on this, but I believe it was in 1975, after years and years of realizing Rochester, New York was famous for lilacs, and Rochester, New Hampshire has a lot of lilacs in its vicinity… why don’t we make this also Lilac City?” said Giunta. He also pointed out that Route 108, towards Rochester’s airport, is “one of the longest stretch of lilacs I can recall in New Hampshire on any major road.”

“I think it helped to boost their economy and helped beautify the city better,” said Giunta. “Plus, the fact that [lilac is] our State Flower, too.”

He contends: the New York connection is not a coincidence.

“I don’t believe so. No, I don’t believe so at all,” said Giunta. “Rochester, New York, known for their lilacs... Rochester, New Hampshire must also have the title.”

To Giunta, lilacs are “Granite State Strong.”

“In fact, some of the best years I’ve seen the lilac bloom have been some of the coldest winters we’ve had. So, there it is! There’s the New Hampshire connection right there. It’s a hardy strong plant. It’s got so many different colors, so many different varieties. It’s all New Hampshire,” said Giunta.

Purple highways, strong and hardy, many different colors, so many different varieties. It smells like veiled political commentary, no?

In a sense, lilacs are a symbol of Granite State Pride: pride that led Rochester to officially claim the title of Lilac City, whether that was in the ‘30s, ‘50s, or even 1970s, and perhaps in response to competition from the likes of New York. It’s pride that led governors to “purple-ize” state highways, and pride that compels gardeners to plant lilacs in the backyard.

But, according to the Book of Proverbs, and as written by Jay-Z, pride always goeth before the fall.

II.The Fall

The Wentworth Coolidge Mansion is the port-of-entry for the lilac in New Hampshire, and, perhaps, the United States. The mansion was part of colonial Governor Wentworth’s estate, situated on a windy peninsula overlooking the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Piscataqua River, and a smattering of islands, with names like Snuffbox and Clampit.

The storybook-yellow Wentworth Coolidge Mansion and an old lilac
Credit Justine Paradis

Governor Wentworth painted his house red and planted purple lilacs in his gardens in 1750. Later, the house passed on to the Coolidge family, who were friendly with Beatrix Potter (Potter dedicated The Fairy Caravan to a member of the family).

The Coolidges painted the house an eye-catching sunflower. It’s easy to imagine how the purple lilacs planted by the house would really pop against that yellow wall -- that is, if there were any lilacs left by that sunflower wall.

“Originally, [the lilacs] absolutely covered this whole area, and you can sort of see what’s begun to happen to them.. There's a disease that's in the soil called Armillaria that’s getting into the lilacs and slowly killing them off. The reason they haven't replanted next to the house is they're afraid it's still there,” said Sandy Phelps, lead guide at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion.

“They are beginning to just shrivel up and die. It looks like driftwood up there by the wall,” said Phelps, pointing to a twisted, sun-bleached log, probably about six inches in diameter.

A gnarled old lilac tree at the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion
Credit Justine Paradis

“What the problem was: the plants were so old. I mean, there were lilacs stems that looked like tree trunks, one or two feet wide,” said Giunta, who was involved in the restoration effort.

“Some of us wanted to start pruning to hope we could rejuvenate these plants, while others were saying, its historical and we shouldn’t touch it. Well, we held on, and held on, until the historical part started to wear off because the plants were dying.”

Neglecting to prune the lilacs isn’t good for them, according to Beth Simpson, owner of Rolling Green Nursery in Greenland, New Hampshire.

“They need to be renovated by pruning frequently. In the nursery, after a while, it's good to prune out about thirty percent of the old wood of lilacs to keep them healthy,” Simpson explained.

The caretakers of the lilacs wanted the plants to look old -- it was important to the first-in-the-nation story. But in keeping up appearances of this idea of the first and oldest, the lilacs weren’t properly cared for. After the cumulative effects of years of drought, soil compaction from visitors, and lack of pruning, the lilacs got sick. By the time anyone realized what was happening, their ancient roots had been infected with honey fungus, or Armillaria.

From pride comes the fall; and from hubris, honey fungus.

The Wentworth Coolidge Commission decided to try to save the old lilacs with the help of lilac heavyweights like Owen Rogers, an internationally recognized lilac expert and professor at the University of New Hampshire.

A documentary on the effort to save the ancient lilacs, featuring the late Owen Rogers and Guy Giunta, who knew and admired Rogers. "Just a master when it came to all kinds of plants, but lilac was his passion. He made it my passion too... I love him to this day."

But alas, it was too late for the old trunks.

“They’re dead… and unfortunately, that fungus stays in the soil for a very, very long time,” said Simpson. “As long as we’re probably alive.”

III. The Legend

But, before the old lilacs totally died off, they did come up with a different way to keep that first-in-the-nation distinction.

“They worked with Syringa Plus out of Newbury, Massachusetts, and they were a lilac specialty grower, to have some of the original lilacs tissue-cultured… which means cloned, essentially,” said Simpson.

 

The lilac restoration project at the Wentworth Coolidge
Credit Justine Paradis

In this effort, the Commission produced hundreds of plants cloned from the ancient lilac trunks. Simpson helped to pot up the specimens and build new raised beds to raise them in. The Commission also sold some of these clones to the public at the Lilac Festival.  Simpson says her part of the project took about eight years, and last fall, they transplanted some of mature clones to a new bed along with a mix of other varieties.

“It’s going to be exciting. I don’t know, because they are newly transplanted, if we'll see any flowers this year but with some TLC going forward -- a little extra water, if we have a droughty time, maybe some fertilizer… we’ll see flowers in the next few years in the new planting,” said Simpson. “I’m very hopeful.

 

Despite over a dozen phone calls to various city officials and organizations in Rochester, no one I spoke with knew for sure how, or why, or even when the city earned its title. But Jen Murphy Aubin in the city’s Economic Development Department says: it doesn’t really matter.

“I think everyone desperately wants to have a stake in history,” said Aubin. New Hampshire’s lilacs might have been the oldest in the nation, but then again, they might not. The point is, they’re a symbol of… something.

“And be it a lilac, be it an eagle, I think all of those are kind of relevant.”

Lilac City might have named by enterprising gardener Helen Hussey Champlin and her garden club in the 1930’s. New Hampshire might have been competing with Rochester, New York. But perhaps this is all just an endearing coincidence. Something to laugh about.  

The ancient lilacs live on
Credit Justine Paradis

“I really do think that in history the things we're speculating right now can easily be started, like a massive game of telephone, and by the time it gets around the neighborhood, it's something different entirely,” said Aubin. “So, that we can't exactly pin down exact naming of the Lilac City for Rochester, and for New Hampshire, is no surprise to me, although it's always satisfying to have something definitive.”

“But I think we can leave this more to lilting scent of lilacs on the breeze, and leave it more to art then fact.”

Even though the honey fungus killed the old trunks, their tissue-cultured clones endure, and so too does the legend of the lilacs.

 

For Guy Giunta, this is the stuff of song.