By Tim Bean
“I had an article idea for you,” Chris Orange said. “Think about the old farmhouses you’ve seen, and how often you see lilac bushes.”
Chris Orange is the park manager of the Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park in Lake County, Indiana. As sharp as a new razor and a frequent inspiration for articles on this site, Chris is a walking file cabinet of Indiana lore. Also, he’s the brother of the co-founder.
Yes, I had seen lilac bushes frequently on the site of old farmhouses. I thought of several I had seen in a line, usually towards the back of the property. “I’ll bite. I assumed it was decorative,” I said.
Chris shook his head. “Trust me, they didn’t spend much time a hundred years ago bothering with landscaping. That’s a pretty recent thing. Lilac bushes—“
“Lilac bushes or lilac trees?”
“Bushes, usually. The trees get about twenty-five feet tall, the bushes only a dozen or so. And the bushes are more fragrant.” Chris leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands. His degree in education shined through at moments like this. “They’d often plant them for two reasons: One, to mark the grave of a miscarriage or bury placenta after a birth.”
I shivered. My wife and I had endured three miscarriages. I remembered the sympathy cards: a soft lavender. The lilac.
“What’s the other purpose?” I asked.
“Not quite as honorable,” he said and chuckled a little. “You know the smell of lilac bushes?”
I did. I am not a horticulturist and have frequently failed to repair simple patches of grass in my yard, but I do have a lilac bush at the edge of my property (which incidentally is just over a hundred years old). Few things in nature smell as good as a lilac bush in bloom, and no candle or spray can ever really duplicate the smell.
“They smell good,” I said.
“Outhouses,” he said, nodding again. “They’d plant them next to outhouses and when it came time to move the outhouse, as it did when—uh—they got too stinky. Or full. They’d move the outhouse down and plant another lilac bush over the filled hole. Decades later, same thing. Eventually, on old, old properties, you’d see a line of these lilac bushes, usually on the edge of the property. Far away from delicate eyes. And noses.”
I thought about it for a minute. “That would make a good article. But I’d need to substantiate all this.”
“You would. And can. I just ask that you mention me in the article. Make me sound smart. And see if you can squeeze in the marsh, maybe get us some likes on Facebook,” he said.
“I’d be happy to,” I said.
And I did.
For those interested in historical examples of the lilac’s use for both outhouses and in commemorating the grave of stillbirths or miscarriages, read The Truth in “The Truth About Lilacs.”