The Syringa

The vegetable garden in my parents’ yard in Rochelle filled the space between our driveway and the low wire fence that separated our yard from the Lamars’ yard to the east. The garden expanded and changed over the years as my father turned the soil each spring with his pick-mattock, shovel, and pitchfork in preparation for his planting. In fact, my earliest memory of the garden is of the day Dad showed us a nest of garter snakes he had uncovered in an area that had not previously been dug at the “back” of the garden behind the garage. There, at the “back” of the garden, behind the garage and along our property line on the north, Dad planted a row of shrubs, perhaps intending them to form a hedge. They never actually formed a hedge — the spaces between the plants were too large, and the plants themselves grew upward rather than hedge-like so that they didn’t form a barrier, or at least not a barrier that prevented small animals and children from passing through. And I remember passing through frequently, even after Dad filled the area immediately in front of the shrubs with raspberry plants, whose wicked thorns could make a hot afternoon very unpleasant (but we managed to pick the berries anyway).

There were at least two kinds of bushes along this row, but I remember only one clearly, the plant Dad called “the syringa”. For me, as a child, the syringa was a wonderful, fascinating bush. In the spring it put forth a display of white flowers that attracted bees and butterflies, making an appealing backdrop for the garden. But much more interestingly, its bark was perpetually peeling in long, thin strips, and I, of course, couldn’t help encouraging it to continue this activity.

The back of the garden provided me, and probably other children as well, a more adventurous path between our yard and the neighboring yard. To the west of the garage no fence or hedge of any kind marked the boundary between the yards, besides a single lilac bush and a row of young pines, so nothing at all prevented our movement from yard to yard. But if one went through the garden one could pretend to be forcing one’s way through a jungle, albeit a jungle only one bush deep. And in the course of traversing that jungle one was confronted by delicate strips of bark hanging from the branches, and attached to the bark was a thin layer of cork-like pith that one could peel and press between one’s fingers, forming a small ball of doubtful utility. I remember speculating on possible commercial uses for this pith, but my imagination was too limited. The pith was fun to play with, though — I hope I didn’t hurt the shrub too much.

A few months ago while pondering what plants we would like in our new yard here in Clarksburg the syringa came to mind. Not that I necessarily wanted one, but I remembered it fondly and wondered if it would work in this yard. So I started searching for information about it, and immediately encountered a problem. I couldn’t find any information about Dad’s “syringa”. “Syringa” is actually what I grew up calling “lilac”. I found this discovery a bit confusing, since two other plants in our yard were definitely lilacs, and we always called them lilacs, and now I didn’t know what Dad’s “syringa” was.

Eventually I discovered another plant that is commonly, but mistakenly, called “syringa”, but more properly called “Mock-orange” or “Philadelphus”. After reading the descriptions I found I believe that this is the “syringa” we had. The descriptions I have seen don’t talk about anything like cork or pith under the bark, and perhaps my memory is mistaken on that point, but the rest of the descriptions sound like the shrub I knew.

We have a lilac already here in Clarksburg, an inheritance from a previous owner; perhaps a mock-orange wouldn’t be out of place in this yard as well. We’ll have to think about it.

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