LILAC, a fragrant, deciduous shrub of the genus Syringa of Oleaceae, olive family. The term is derived from Persian lilanj, the indigo plant (Skeat, p. 341; cp. Mid. Pers. nīl “indigo,” nili “dark blue”). “Lilac” is also a substantive for a pale to light or moderate purple (Amer. Heritage Dict., s.v.; cf. Pers. lāki). The genus Syringa is named after Syrinx, a nymph of Greek legend who was transformed into a hollow reed and lived on invisibly in the shepherd reed. The name Syringa thus means a hollow tube and refers to the broad pith in the shoots, which is easily hollowed out to make reed flutes (Bennett, pp. 22, 57). In Persian, the lilac plant is known as yās-e ḵušaʾi (clustered yās), yās-e banafš (purple yās), yāsaman, yāsamin (Ar. yasmin), and yās (Dehḵodā, s.v.; Zargari, III, p. 346; Zāhedi, p. 175). These three last names also designate the genus Jasminum of the same family, which is a different plant and whose use in similes and metaphors in Persian poetry do not fit the description of lilac.
The common lilac (S. vulgaris L.), also called pipe tree in England, is the widespread species of this genus. This shrub reaches approximately 6 m and produces many suckers and shoots from the stem or root. Leaves are 4-8 cm long, ovate; inflorescences 10-20 cm long, usually paired, without basal leaves; corolla tube 8-12 mm long, cylindrical, and often purplish; capsule 8-14 mm long, ovoid, acuminate (Tutin et al., III, p. 54; Bennett, p. 67).
The Persian lilac (S. persica L.) is a small shrub, about 2 m tall and slightly wide, with upright branches and relatively compact branching habit; bluish green leaves, almost lance or ovate form, about 5 × 1.5 cm, 3-9 pinnate; early-blooming tubular, usually pale purple and dark-centered flowers with a distinctive spicy fragrance (Murray, p. 2; Bennett, p. 86). The Persian lilac has been a garden favorite in Iran for centuries and today occurs in various parts of the country (Murray, p. 2). This species is assumed to be a hybrid between S. vulgaris and S. laciniata (Bennett, p. 86).
The Afghan lilac (S. afghanica C. K. Schneider), endemic of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also a deciduous small shrub, with short and diverge ramification; leaves 1-3 × 0.2-1.3 cm, entire, almost leather form, elliptical or linear lance; inflorescences 2-4 cm long, corolla tubular, 1 cm long (Murray, p. 2).
A lilac needs sunlight and benefits from cool climates; it is often planted in late winter or early spring. It needs pruning to maintain its form and abundant blooms (O’Sullivan and Bussolini, p. 346). It can be propagated by dividing suckers, layering, cutting, and grafting. While common lilac may be susceptible to frost damage, and to a few pests (scales, borers, and leaf miners) and diseases (bacterial blight and Ring spot virus), Persian lilac is considered as a trouble-free shrub (Bennett, pp. 86, 106-7). Hundreds of improved varieties, mostly French, have large single or double flowers in various intense colors and are more disease resistant than wild lilacs.
In the 19th century, many people planted a lilac, with its fragrant flower clusters in traditional lilac blue, below a window of their house so that they could breathe in the scent (O’Sullivan and Bussolini, p. 346). In Western Europe, forced lilacs are used for Christmas in the United States and Canada instead of poinsettias (Bennett, p. 42). The easiest way to force lilacs is to pick budded branches and keep them in warm places.
Lilac flowers are edible. They are picked, washed, dried, and used in salads and desserts. Most plant parts possess Syringopicrin and Syringin (Zargarī, III, p. 348). Syringin, also known as lilacin, is a glucoside found in the bark. It is extracted as a white crystalline substance, combined with malic acid (Simpson and Weiner, VIII, p. 952). In herbal medicine, extracts of bark and flowers are used for treatment of some kinds of fever, diarrhea, and rheumatism. The extracts of bark and fruits of Persian lilac have tonic, constipating, and antipyretic effects (Zargarī, III, p. 348-49). In Egypt, flowers of the double white lilac is used to help women in their labor of childbirth (Bennett, p. 25).
Young stems of Persian and common lilacs possess soft pith and can be evacuated easily to make flutes. The older stems, however, possess hard pith and may be used in inlaid work in Persian fine arts (Dehḵodā, s.v.). The lilac’s perfume is just as haunting, invisible, and airborne as Syrinx (Bennett, pp. 22, 57).
Jennifer Bennett, Lilacs for the Garden, New York, 2002.
Bahram Grami, Gol o gīāh dar hezār sāl šeʿr-e fārsi: Tašbihāt wa esteʿārāt, Tehran, 2010, pp. 436-48.
D. N.Mackenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary, Oxford, 1971, p. 60.
Edward Murray, Flora Iranica: Flora des iranischen Hochlandes und der umrahmenden Gebirge LII: Oleaceae, ed. Karl Heinz Rechinger, Graz, Austria, 1968.
Penelope O’Sullivan and Karen Bussolini, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook: The Essential Guide to Choosing, Planting and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants, North Adams, Mass., 2007.
J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary VIII, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1989.
Walter W. Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Oxford, 1956.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., Boston, 2000.
Thomas G. Tutin et al., Flora Europaea III: Diapensiaceae to Myoporaceae, Cambridge, 1972.
Esmāʿil Zāhedi, Vāža-nāma-ye giāhi, Tehran, 1958.
ʿAli Zargari, Giāhān-e dārui, 6th ed., Tehran, 1996-2004.
(Ahmad Aryavand and Bahram Grami)
Originally Published: June 29, 2015
Last Updated: October 28, 2015Cite this entry:
Ahmad Aryavand and Bahram Grami, "LILAC," Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2015, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/lilac (accessed on 29 June 2015).