Each spring I eagerly await the first signs that the lilac bushes are about to bloom at Westfield Heritage Village Conservation Area. It’s only recently that I have heard them referred to as an invasive species. I have dark thoughts when I think of other invasive species like the Buckthorn and Garlic Mustard, but not when I think of the Lilac Bushes. Hiking out onto our trails you will smell them long before you see them. Canadian poet, Al Purdy, wrote “the whole world smells like lilacs” and I know what he means a few weeks every spring. This year they seem to be blooming about a week early. These plants are not native to North America, but they have been a recognizable plant here since the mid-18th century. The plant could be found along the travel routes of traders throughout Europe and Asia and eventually the plant came to North America with early settlers.
Did you know that the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington has one of the world’s largest collection of lilacs featuring 745 plants? Did you know that the very dense wood of the lilac is prized for making musical instruments, knife handles and pens? Did you know that Canada’s first female hybridizer, Isabella Preston, developed 125 different strains of lilacs during her career at the Central Experimental Farm including the Preston Lilac? These hybrids are late blooming and extremely hardy. They were bred for our Canadian climate.
Have you ever wondered why you see a hedge row of lilacs and sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere? This is perhaps my favourite little known fact about lilacs and possibly why Westfield’s lilacs are located where they are in our conservation area. Lilacs were often planted on farmsteads next to the outhouse. You can imagine for obvious reasons- to help mask an unpleasant odour. An outhouse would be used for maybe 2 or 3 years and once it was too full a new hole would be dug and the outhouse moved. In the old spot a lilac bush was planted and this would carry on until there was a whole row. Over a hundred years ago there were two farms located within Westfield’s conservation area. They are long gone, but you can still see the remnants of the farms including the foundation of the house, a barn and a springhouse as you hike the trails. In the location of these two farms you will find our lilac dell. Perhaps these lilacs were planted to mask an unpleasant smell from the privy. Today they provide a beautiful perfume backdrop to a stroll in the woods.
Westfield is open 7 days a week for hikes and walks. Here is a taste of what you might experience: