Lilacs: Beautiful and Bittersweet
The complicated history of our seasonal Spring scent
The sweet scent of lilacs ushers in the warmth of spring. For each of us, having grown up on farms in Southern Ontario, lilacs were a signal to warmer weather, longer days, later bedtimes, and the excitement of knowing school will soon be out; that summer is coming. Prolific and abundant across the rolling fields of Ontario, lilacs have always been central to our experience and therefore were an obvious choice as our first seasonal fragrance.
If you are like us, you will be surprised to learn that there is no species of lilac native to Canada, or even North America for that matter. By simply glossing over the history of the lilac to focus solely on its fragrant beauty, we would miss a huge opportunity to reflect on its journey into our gardens via Canadian colonialism.
A transnational flower, lilacs actually have their roots in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia and were first introduced to Canada by European settlers. With no records of who was the first individual to bring lilacs into Canada, one can only assume that they were either extremely common cargo or else so incredibly rare that no documentation can be found.
The truth of the matter is that lilacs are just one among hundreds of other plant and animal species brought over with the intention of altering this environment. Through this process of colonization, Indigenous lands have been transformed over generations to an altogether unrecognizable landscape.
The fragrance of the lilac is rapturous and impossible to ignore, and so perhaps we should transform a problem into a prompt. As we inhale in their beauty, let us take a moment to recognize the lilac’s place in Canada’s complicated history. Just as their essence uplifts our senses, let us leverage that moment with mindfulness. Let us spare a second to consider how Canadians can strive towards more meaningful reconciliation and identify our own place in that process.