May

 

By Vita Sackville-West

 

May 1948

 

By the time this article appears the lilac should be in flower. It is not called lilac now by the experts: it is called syringa; and what we used to call syringa is now called philadelphus. All very confusing, so let us incorrectly retain the old names for the moment, when everyone will know what I mean.

 

Lilac (or laylock if you prefer) is one of the few old favourites which has been definitely improved in recent years. Frankly, the pale mauve type was a washy thing. The newer sorts have gained in size, colour and scent. I suppose that everyone is by now familiar with the earlier improvements: Souvenir de Louis Spath, and Charles Joly, both dark red; or Charles X, deep purple; or Madame Lemoine, double white; none of which is easy to beat. But not everyone, I find, is familiar with the more recent hybrids, carrying truly noble plumes of immense weight: Réaumur, dark red; President Poincaré and Pasteur, both claret; Congo, very dark reddish-purple;Jeanne d'Arc, double white; Mme F. Morel, mauvish pink; Maréchal Foch, red.

 

Any lilac is 'easy'; they do not object to lime, in fact they like it; they need no pruning, though it is most advantageous to cut off the faded flowers, this is really important; they are perfectly hardy; and vey long-lived unless they suddenly die back, which sometimes happens. Few plants could give you more for 8s. 6d. or half a guinea. Of course they repay rich cultivation; most plants do. And they like the sun.

 

The old syringa or Mock Orange, is another easy-going shrub, too often forgotten. Personally I like the early, very sweet-scented species, called coronarius, found in most old gardens; but Virginal, with double flowers, is a lovely cool green-and-white sight in midsummer; and so are Belle Etoile and purpureo-maculatus, both blotched with maroon in the centre. Grandiflorus is the one with big single white flowers, very decorative but entirely scentless, which may be a recommendation for people who do not like heavily-scented flowers in their rooms. By the way, if you strip all the leaves from cut branches of syringa they will last far longer, besides gaining in beauty. Try. And smash the woody stems with a hammer.

 

I end with a counsel of warning. Counsel: try to see plants in bloom during the coming months, either in private gardens open to the public – and there are many, my own garden, for instance, is open every day until the end of October – or at shows, or in nursery gardens, or in gardens such as Kew and the Royal Horticultural Society's place at Wisley. There is no better way of judging what plants really look like and what really appeals to you. Warning: this applies to slug-bait. Whatever you use, keep it away from dogs and cats, either by mixing it with tea-leaves or by tilting something like a tile or a piece of glass over it. It is wise to be on the safe side.

 

May 9, 1948

 

Agreeable incidents do continue to occur from time to time, even in 1948; and there still seem to be days when things marvellously go right instead of wrong, rarities to be recorded with gratitude before they can be forgotten. Such a day, culminating in such an incident, was given to me recently. I had had occasion to drive across ten miles of Kent, through the orchard country. The apple-blossom was not yet fully out; and it was still in that fugitive precious stage of being more of a promise than a fulfilment. Apple-blossom too quickly becomes over-blown, whereas its true character is to be as tightly youthful as an eighteen-year-old poet. There they were, the closed buds just flushing pink, making a faintly roseate haze over the old trees grey with age; closed buds of youth graciously blushing as youth must blush in the presence of age, knowing very well that within a few months they themselves would turn into the apples of autumnal fruit.

 

But if the apple-blossom was no more than a pink veil thrown over the orchards, the cherry was at its most magnificent. Never had it looked more lavish than this year (1948), nor so white, so candidly white. This heavy whiteness of the cherry, always enhanced by the contrasting blackness of the branches, was on this particular afternoon deepened – if white may be said to deepen- by a pewter-grey sky of storm as a backcloth; and I thought, not for the first time, how perfectly married were these two effects in April: the dazzling blossom and the peculiarly lurid heaven which is only half a menace. Only half, for however wrathful it may pretend to be overhead, there are gleams of light round the edges, with lances of sun striking a church tower somewhere in the landscape. It is not a true threat; it is a temporary threat, put on for its theatrical effect – Nature's original of that most strange and beautiful of man's new inventions, flood-lighting.

 

Enriched by these experiences I came home, expecting no further delight that day; but on arrival I saw a closed van at the front door. Having long awaited some spare parts to repair the boiler, dreary, yet necessary, I walked round to the back of the van, thinking how quickly utilitarian life returned to oust beauty, and with a sigh prepared to investigate some graceless assortment of ironmongery whose function would be incomprehensible to me. But there was no such thing. Instead, a smiling young man confronted me, saying he did not know if I would be interested, but he had brought these... and opened the van as he spoke.

 

'These' were giant pansies, thousands and thousands of them. The van's dark interior was a cavern of colour. Some royal hand had flung rugs of velvet over the stacks of wooden trays. Purples were there; and subtler colours than purple: bronze and greenish-yellow and claret and rose-red, all in their queer cat-faces of crumpled velvet. I stood amazed. What an imaginative young man, I thought, to hawk this giant strain round the countryside, selling his plants to any buyer. When I questioned him, he said, modestly, that he hoped people would not be able to resist them. He was probably right, and I wish him good luck in his enterprise. As for those whose houses do not lie on his road, a packet of seed should serve the purpose, and by next spring the ground should appear as though spread with the most sumptuous carpet from Isfahan.


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