The sweet scent drifting across the evening air in the garden tells me that my lilacs are starting to bloom – a brief gift, as they only flower for two or three weeks. To me there is something in it that stirs the blood for the lilacs are a sign of renewal and the year opening up, and the perfume carries with it the promise of things to come – the drone of humming bees, lazy, balmy days and the taste of heady, lilac wine.
Lilacs (Syringa spp.) are found in old gardens all across Britain, America and Europe, so we think they have always been with us, but both the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and the smaller Persian lilac (Syringa persica) were only introduced into northern European gardens in the sixteenth century from Ottoman gardens, and the name ‘lilac’ comes from an Arabic word lilak, which means ‘dark blue’. It was a rarity at the time, not mentioned by Shakespeare, though the English herbalist John Gerard was able to obtain some plants, and wrote about them in 1597. They were soon immensely popular and carried by colonists to the Americas in the eighteenth century.
The genus name, Syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, which means a ‘pipe’, referring to the pith-filled stems. Pipes and flutes used to be made by hollowing out the stems of wood or reeds (the word ‘syringe’ comes from the same root). Botanists took the name from the story of nymph Syrinx, a follower of the chaste goddess Artemis. As she was pursued by the amorous wild god Pan to the edge of a river, she called to the river nymphs to save her. Taking pity, they transformed her into hollow reeds. Pan found that as he breathed across the reeds they made a musical sound, so he fashioned them into his famous Pan pipes, known as syrinx.  There is no ancient association of Pan, Syrinx and the lilac, however, and lilac is not good for making flutes. The limited size of the shrub makes it only suitable for very small woodturning projects too such as bowls and pens, though it has a tendency to twist and crack as it dries. The wood is very dense though, and I know people who have lilac athame handles or wands.
The lilac has heart shaped leaves, and this, along with the sweet scent, associated it in Victorian flower lore with love. In the entirely invented Language of Flowers, by which sweethearts could pass coded messages to each other, the giving of a lilac was meant to be a reminder of an old love.
However, the older folklore is somewhat darker. It was used for apotropaic (evil repelling) purposes in Bulgarian bridal flowers and hung above Russian cradles. In New England, they were planted to keep evil away from properties, or used to drive out ghosts.
In Britain, taking lilac flowers indoors was considered unlucky, and to “take death into the house”, from its association as a funeral flower;  strong scented flowers and herbs were often used to cover up the scent of death. The colour purple associates it with mourning.
The flowers are edible, but they are astringent (too many will dry your mouth out) and slightly bitter. If you want to use them, as with all perfumed flowers, they can be overwhelming, and a little is better than a lot. Use as an edible garnish on cakes, ice cream and cocktails. You can also add a small amount of fresh flowers into the batter of cakes, scones and cookies, but too much may be unpleasant. One of the best ways to use them is to make lilac sugar to add to your baking, a lilac syrup to pour over ice cream or use as a base for cocktails, or lilac infused honey used in baking, teas and drinks. You can crystallize the flowers for later use as a decoration on biscuits and cakes.
The delicious scent of lilacs is often found in cosmetics, soaps and toiletries. Sadly, it is usually a synthetic perfume that is used, since a true lilac flower essential oil is not available. This is a great shame because lilac has wonderful benefits for the skin and hair.
It has antimicrobial substances that protect the plant and which can also help protect your skin from the bacteria which may cause local inflammation and infection. Moreover, it also contains powerful antioxidants with strong anti-inflammatory effects that have been studied for the treatment of skin conditions such as dermatitis. Lilac helps repair oxidative damage and stimulates cellular regeneration; by stimulating cellular regrowth, it combats skin aging. Lilac can also help supress the development of age spots and hyperpigmentation. Add some Infused Lilac Oil to your homemade moisturiser recipes or apply the oil directly on your skin.
Lilac flowers and leaves are astringent and an infusion of either makes a great skin toner, tightening the skin. This is especially useful, and slightly drying, on oily, acne prone skin.
Lilac is also great for the hair and scalp. Use Lilac Infusion as a hair tonic. The Infused Lilac Oil massaged into your scalp strengthens your hair at the roots and helps eliminates dandruff.
Actions: antiperiodic, astringent, vermifuge, febrifuge, diaphoretic, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral
Lilac is rarely used in modern herbalism, though in the past it was used for digestive problems such as dyspepsia, flatulence (excess gas), and diarrhoea, parasitic worms and malaria, and by folk herbalists for headaches, cough, colds and skin diseases.
Lilac Tea makes a good after dinner digestive.
Lilac flowers are very soothing – to destress, just drop a few into your bath and relax!
The flowers produce a green dye and the twigs produce orange.
Do not use internally if taking medicines that alter blood coagulation, during pregnancy or lactation.
Lilac Facial Toner
Fill a jam jar with lilac blossoms, picked on a dry, sunny day. Cover the flowers with witch hazel. Allow to infuse for 2 weeks, shaking daily. Strain into a clean jar and label. Will keep at least six months.
A simpler version can be made by putting lilac flowers into a heatproof bowl. Pour on boiling water and let them sit for 15 minutes. Strain and cool the liquid. This will keep in the fridge for around 3 days.
Apply your lilac facial toner on a cotton pad, after cleansing your skin. Follow with your usual moisturiser.
2-3 lilac flower heads
1 cup boiling water
Put the boiling water over the flowers. Infuse 15 minutes. Strain.
Lilac Infused Oil
Pack a jam jar with lilac flowers. Cover with oil (sunflower, olive etc.). Leave to infuse for 2-3 weeks, shaking daily. Strain into a clean bottle. You can make the scent stronger by infusing the oil a second, third and fourth time. Use as a facial, body or hair oil.
Lilac Infused Honey
Half fill a clean jar with freshly picked flowers (remove the individual flowers from the head). Warm your honey a little, either on a low setting in the microwave, or in a pan of boiling water, and pour over the flowers. Infuse for a month. You can strain this by warming the honey a little again, and pouring through a sieve into a clean jar, though you can leave the flowers in, if you like.
6 pints lilac flowers
2 ½ lb granulated sugar
7 pints water
1 tsp yeast nutrient
Put the flowers into a brewing bin. Boil the water and pour over the flowers. Cover and infuse for 48 hours. Strain into a demijohn. (Discard the pulp.) Add the sugar, yeast nutrient, and lemon juice, and stir until completely dissolved. Sprinkle the yeast on top. Fit an airlock and leave to ferment out, before racking into a clean demijohn. Keep 6 months and bottle.
Fill a large jar with lilac flowers. Cover with gin. Infuse for 24 hours. Strain.
2 tsp lilac flowers
1 cup boiling water
Pour the boiling water over the flowers. Infuse 15 minutes, strain and drink, with a little honey if desired. This makes a good after dinner digestive.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses
 Jaqueline Simpson & Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000