Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England
Lilac in me because I am New England. . .
- Amy Lowell, "Lilacs"

Heart-Leaves of Lilac
Professor emeritus Owen Rogers' quest for the perfect lilac

If he were to start at the very beginning, telling the story of his love affair with lilacs, Owen Rogers would start with memories of childhood visits, more than 70 years ago, to his grandparents' farm in Maine. It is summer. The morning sun slants across the grass, and he is barefoot, running toward the old barn. At the door stands a lilac, gnarled and ancient, fragrant with purple blooms, a gracious sentinel.

Today, the UNH professor emeritus of plant biology is a grandfather himself. His young grandson, who visits Rogers almost daily, is gathering his own lilac memories now. "Everybody has an emotional connection to lilacs," says Rogers. "Everyone has a lilac in their yard--or knows a friend or relative who had one." In fact, the lilac's familiarity poses a maddening problem for plant biologists. Unlike roses, for example, for which there are reams of historical documentation, lilacs make almost no appearance in garden literature. There are virtually no written records of its cultivation. Lilacs were planted simply because they were loved--by the back door, by the end of the fence, by the barn. "The lilac was considered a family possession," says Rogers, "not an agricultural commodity."

"Leon Gambetta," with its double purple flower, is one of the many lilac bushes carefully tended by Owen Rogers, professor emeritus of plant biology, whose love of lilacs began more than 70 years ago.

And so, the history of the much-loved lilac remains largely mysterious. A member of the olive family, the lilac is native to Eastern Europe and grows wild in the forests of Hungary and Romania. It made its way to England sometime before 1629, when the first record of its existence appears in writing. In this country, among the very few references to the lilac is an entry in the diary of the country's first president. On Thursday, the third of March in 1785, George Washington noted that he "took up the clump of Lilacs that stood at the corner . . . and transplanted them to the clusters in the Shrubberies and standards at the South Garden gate." On April 16 of that same year, he notes that leaves of the lilac "had been out many days, and were the first to show themselves."

Despite the sparsenesss of the written record, widespread love for the lilac remains undiminished. Rogers likes to explain it this way: "What you eat at supper is food for your body. What you see in the lilac is food for the soul." For a very few people this passion for beauty, this craving for soul food, becomes a life work. Owen Rogers has devoted his entire research career to the lilac. He has been on a patient quest for what he considers the ultimate cultivated variety: a double flower, short bush, late-blooming, mildew-resistant lilac. "My magnum opus," he calls it.

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