Lilacs bloom at Shelburne Farms

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(Host) It’s lilac time in Vermont, and one man who is very much caught up in the season is Charlie Proutt. On Sunday, as he has for the past decade, he gave tours of the Shelburne Museum’s annual “Lilac and Gardening Sunday.”

VPR’s Lynne McCrea visited with Charlie Proutt at his nursery and at the museum to talk about the legacy of the lilac:

(Proutt) “There’s some lilacs in America reputed to be 400 years old!”

(McCrea) Of all the qualities of the lilac, Charlie Proutt is most enamored with its longevity. As he explains it, the lilac is not indigenous to America, but was brought here from Europe as early as the first days of the Pilgrims.

(Proutt) “I think it was probably one of the first imported landscape plants to America because it was so easy to dig up. In the Fall, especially if you were on a winter trip, you’d dig it up in the Fall, stick a slip in your luggage, and by the time you got to America and planted it in the Spring, it would come out. Didn’t require any dirt, and they’re extremely rugged and tough.”

(McCrea) Easy to transplant, easy to share with neighbors. Charlie Proutt thinks that’s what first prompted Electra Havemeyer Webb to bring lilacs to the grounds of Shelburne Museum, a mission she called “Operation Lilac.”

(Proutt) “Yeah, in her notes she dubbed it ‘Operation Lilac.’ This was well before Desert Storm or any of the new operations we read about, and this was in the late 40’s and early 50’s. What Mrs. Webb did then was collected a bunch of lilac s, and there were about 90 varieties. And she planted them in one collection, and on corners of buildings that the museum had started with. And over the years, as they would add a building, they would raid the collection. And put four lilacs on the corners of the buildings.”

(McCrea) Today, Charlie Proutt looks out over more than 400 lilacs on the museum grounds. Some of these lilacs came from just down the road in Charlotte, at Horsfords, the nursery Proutt now owns. In his mind, there’s no better place to see lilacs, than in Vermont:

(Proutt) “Vermont has the best lilacs in the world! You know, you go south from here and they’re never as good. We have perfect soils – the Champlain Valley is absolutely perfect for lilacs.”

(McCrea) Perfect timing is another matter. This year’s late Spring means a late season for lilacs. But no matter when the lilacs blossom, what Charlie Proutt sees every year is beauty, romance and history.

(Proutt) “You know there’s lots of folklore about lilacs and the fragrance and the romance of them in Spring. It’s the longevity of them. When you see a really old lilac, the bark gets all twisted and furled, and just has this character to it that is ancient. And it’s sort of, not what you think of as the perfect lilac, but like people, there are all sorts of different things to appreciate in them.”

(McCrea) Charlie Proutt’s love of the lilac is just about universal in New England this time of year. One of Vermont’s newspapers, the Rutland Herald, has printed an ode to the lilac on its editorial page every year since 1929, noting that the bush “has given its name to color, perfume, poem and song.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea in Shelburne.

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