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"
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."
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.
For decades, Rogers spent two weeks each June stripping tiny florets from the branches of the lilacs blooming at UNH's Woodman Farm. Back at the lab, hunched over heaps of fingernail-sized blossoms, Rogers gently coaxed each one open with tweezers, exposing the two anthers, and removing the pollen. Later, he returned to the lilac branch he had recently stripped, tiny paintbrush in hand. Standing in the morning sun like some benevolent wizard of the garden, he would dust thousands of pistils (left behind when the floret is removed) with pollen. He covered each cluster with a small paper bag, secured at the bottom with a "twist 'em," and carefully labeled it. "That way I always knew exactly what cross I'd made," says Rogers, "and no bees or butterflies could get in to mess up the works."
Rogers repeated this process over and over again each year, dusting maybe 1,000 blossoms a day, perhaps 10,000 in a season. And then he waited. At the end of the summer, he collected all his bags and returned to the lab, where he dug out the seeds that had resulted from his work. In February, he planted seedlings in the greenhouse. Eventually the strongest seedlings made it into the ground. And then the longest wait of all began. "It takes about 10 years to get from start to finish," says Rogers. During those years he watched and made notes: What's the shape of the bush? Do the branches break off? What's the color of the flower? The quality of the fragrance? When does it bloom? Is it susceptible to mildew? Of the 100 or so seeds that germinated each year, maybe a dozen made it onto Rogers' short list.
When the nurserymen came to visit, they walked with Rogers through the bushes, looking for what they thought would sell. Sometimes, they found something--like Agnes Smith, which went on to be chosen as the best plant introduction of 1973 by the International Propagators Society. Late-blooming and loaded with huge white blossoms, it is the lilac for which Owen Rogers will be most remembered. The patient work of a patient man.
Agnes Smith, however, for all its success, is not the lilac Rogers himself was after. His quest for his "magnum opus" continued, year after year. Along the way, he created a number of other commercially successful cultivars. James Macfarlane, named for the man who ran the UNH greenhouses for many years, has dark red buds that open to clear rosy pink; the late-blooming Jesse Hepler, named for a UNH horticulture professor, blooms in pale lavender and slowly changes to shades of pink; and Helen Chamberlin, named for a Federated Garden Clubs member famous for the half-mile of lilacs she planted in "the Lilac City" of Rochester, N.H., blooms deep purple.
Retired now, Rogers doesn't pollinate much anymore. His search for the ultimate cultivar is winding down. But he still keeps busy giving occasional talks. And he still attends the International Lilac Society Convention every year, where several hundred people from around the globe get together to talk lilacs for three days straight. Is he disappointed that he hasn't achieved his goal? Rogers pauses and smiles. For a moment, he recalls those early mornings among the lilacs at Woodman Farm, days when the sun is just lifting into the sky and the grass is heavy with dew. He remembers standing alone, gazing at a brand new cultivar, a flower no one else on earth has ever seen before. "Now that," says Rogers, "that is really worth something."
So, yes, the quest remains unfinished. But Owen Rogers is content. He has had his reward. ~
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