Dark Night

'Dark Night'
French Lilac

"Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing."

-Robert Frost


The hybrid lilac 'Dark Night' is a compact upright & rounded deciduous shrub, seven to twelve feet in height, with a four to six foot spread, & possibly larger over time if rarely pruned.

It has dark burgundy or purple-pink racemes of single flowers. It likes full sun. Though it does well in the naturally acidic soils of the Pacific Northwest, it can benefit by the addition of a little lime to its soil.

This was already planted in the dubious location when I first started caring for & expanding the gardens of a friend who'd recently bought the estate. This lilac was planted in a shady spot along with three other full-sun shrubs (three lilacs & a butterfly bush). They weren't able to bloom well in this poorly chosen location, though already a couple of the bushes were just too big to move.

So I moved only the smallest of the shrubs to a more suitable sunnier location, as the four shrubs had at any rate been planted way too close to one another, & it was inescapable that at least one of them be moved immediately, so as to get some air around the shrubs that remain. But I sort of made a halfhearted decision to let the other three shrubs (including 'Dark Night') remain in the shaded location, even if they never bloomed more than moderately.

'Dark Night' was first of the group to bloom in spite of the shadiness, flowering toward the end of April. It clearly would be more floriferous if moved into sunlight, but I justified not moving 'Dark Night' or the other shrubs for several reasons: 1) They would be stressed by such a move & probably stop blooming for a year or two; 2) it's so hard to move large well rooted shrubs; & 3) I think I know why the former owner of the garden selected this dubious spot, to whit:

Because it is so well-enclosed, such highly scented shrubs as the lilacs & the butterfly bush can fill such a location with scent, with scarsely a breeze to weaken the captured intensity. Enclosed by enormous trees, a house, fence, & pergola, even moderate flowering results in a very perfumy cool location out of direct sun; & add the redolent evergreen clematis on the pergola, this seems to have been intended as a perfume garden.

So I figured if these shrubs bloom anywhere near what can be considered "to a reasonable degree" even in this imperfect spot, why not leave them for the very purpose of an enclosed garden of scents. But if after a couple years it seems the lilacs simply haven't bloomed well enough, it'll become a choice of either attempting to move them after all, or sacrificing them entirely in favor of more appropriate plantings. The butterfly bush, such as hate to be dug up ever, would be most easily sacrificed without being sad about it; it's practically an invasive weed in our county.

'Dark Night' is, like other Syringa x hyacinthiflora hybrid lilacs, a semi-dwarf which was derived from crossing of the Early Lilac S. oblata & common lilac S. vulgaris. The first hybridizers for these two species were Pierre Louis Victor Lemoine (1823-1911) & his wife Marie; they effected the first crosses in France in 1876.

But the real development into today's standard cultivars was pioneered by John Casper Wister (1887-1982). He was a cousin & contemporary of Owen Wister, author of the classic American novel The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains (1902). His horticultural career spanned seventy years in England as well as America.

In 1946 he became the first director of the John T. Tyler Arboretum of Lima Pennsylvania. He wrote several books on gardening & was active internationally in many societies devoted to horticulture. So absorbed was he in both scientific & social circles for horticultural interests that he neglected to get married until age 73, finally wedding a fellow horticulture enthusiast, Gertrude Smith. Wister's slogan was "Gardening is not for the few, but for all."

Wister's lilac hybrids are extremely vigorous & unaffected by city air pollution. They have better autumn leaf color than S. vulgaris. Large racemes of single-blossoms have the famed excellent perfume, appearing a week or so sooner than on S. vulgaris, & are long-lasting whether on shrub or in bouquets.

They are very cold-hardy shrubs, suitable to zones 3 through 8. Lilacs in general cannot abide warmer zones but better luck has been achieved further south with some of the hybrids than with the species.

In fairy lore the more appealing flowers in the garden have long been assumed to have spirits attached to them in the form of small winged sprites, most often female. The Lilac Fairy is often seen on ornamental plates, cups, & saucers; in framable prints; as a design for girls' dresses, night gowns, or underwear. This fame is the result of the dynamic Lilac Fairy in Piotr Ilich Tchaicovsky's children's ballet Sleeping Beauty (1890).

The Lilac Fairy was one of the more beautiful presences to attend Aurora's ill-fated christening on her sixteenth birthday. The Lilac Fairy is a demi-goddess of wisdom, & in the Victorian language of flowers, lilacs symbolized wisdom & remembrance. It is by the gift of the Lilac Fairy that the curse of the Death-fairy Carabosse was ammended to a century of sleep along with the entirety of the kingdom. The Lilac Fairy lives on through that century to guide the final dissolution of the evil fairy's curse & the restoration of the kingdom.

The goddess-like nature of Tchaikovsky's personification of the lilac connects her to naiadic lore of the ancient world. The genus is today named after the water-nymph Syrinx, who was a sworn virgin often mistaken for Artemis Herself when she was on a hunt. To evade Pan's lust, Syrinx turned into either water-reeds, or a lilac bush. By the latter notion, the soft heartwood of lilac branches, being easily hollowed out to turn into whistles or pipestems, was assumed to have been the wood from which Pan made his panpipes.

The choice of the lilac over the reed for making the panpipes was an assumption that arose further north in Europe rather than in Greece or Rome, & is a later imposition on the myth. The imposition nevertheless gave rise to sundry associations of the Lilac with Wisdom, Love, & Death, this latter in part because the redolence of the lilacs could be detected even in the gloomy night. And the flute as a sacred instrument was an evocation of grief & loss & failure. So too it became a tradition in temperate zones to plant lilacs in graveyards as symbols of remembrance of the dead.

A similar instrument was associated with another mythological figure, Marsyas, who like Pan was a satyr. Although not coopted as a lilac myth, this parallel story reveals sacred associations of musical instruments with a Pan-like figure, with Pan treated as a sacrificial fertility daemon.

Marsyas came to possess either a flute or a double-flute which had been invented by Athena. The Wisdom-goddess made the double-flute from the bones of a stag, or a single-flute from the legbone of an owl or the wingbone of an eagle. Bones, just like lilac-wood, were easily hollowed out to make just such instruments.

Aphrodite & Hera laughed at how amusing she appeared while playing with her lips puckered & her cheeks puffed out. Athena travelled to the Mount Ida, home of Cybele the Mother of Ideas, in order to see herself reflected true in a naiadic pool while she played the instrument. Seeing exactly why she had been mocked, Athena angrily threw the instrument away. She vowed that whoever picked it up would be punished, & it was the satyr Marsyas who had that misfortune.

A musical contest with Apollo was judged by the Muses. Apollo's instrument was a turtle-shell lyre invented by Hermes. But Apollo was also said to have played a Syrinx which by this tale was claimed as the invention of Hermes rather than of Pan, & Apollo had gotten his reed or lilac-wood syrinx by trading a Cadeuceus for the Messenger-god's flute.

This is an echoe of anearly level of myth. By the classic age it was decided that the flute was a rustic instrument that only such as Pan might play, & the lyre a refined instrument such as Apollo the aesthete would possess. Apollo would not stoop to playing a mere flute. But in this more promitive telling, the contest was between the satyr's aulos or double-flute invented by Athena, versus Apollo's seven-pipe Syrinx invented by Hermes.

The contest began, Apollo upon his turtle-shell lyre & Marsyas on the bone flute. They were evenly matched, so the Muses demanded a second round, during which the instrumentalists must also sing, which Marsyas could not do while blowing the pipes.

In consequence of his defeat Marsyas was bound to a pine tree & flayed alive by the Muses, who had become like the raging meanads of Cybele. From his flowing blood originated a river with the purest water in all Phrygia, said river baring his name.

Some interpreters have suggested that Marsyas or Pan was slain for his audacity, but he is really more of a savior-figure whose brutal sacrifice assists the living. It was for sake of the world's fertility that Pan pillars were in ancient times whipped in symbolic acts of torture, & Dionysian women called maenads would chase after young men who had affixed goat-tails to their backsides, to beat the men with thyrsi (pine staffs) in painful eroticism.

That Marsyas really is Pan is rendered more obvious by the Roman version of the tale which makes the musical duel explicitely between Apollo & Pan, though the judges were the mountain-god Tmolus & King Midas, whose split decision so angered Apollo that he caused Midas to grow the ears of a jackass.


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