In Mother Nature’s Garden: Lilacs

Have you ever eaten lilac? I have, out of curiosity. I can confirm that the taste has nothing to do with the smell. It’s really disappointing!

So how do you enjoy this spring flower in the kitchen? To capture all the flavors, nothing better than macerating lilac flowers in syrups, iced teas, or even directly in sugar. A little taste of spring guaranteed!

Photo : Irina Iriser

The Plant

Originally from the Balkan Peninsula in southern Europe, the lilac is now widespread as an ornamental tree in America and on the Old Continent. The impressive bloom in May attracts dozens of species of insects and is a pleasure for the senses.

Honestly, am I the only one who sits between the branches of my lilac tree to watch the bees at work? They are so busy that they don’t touch me. The sound of their flight is exquisite at this time of year and the lilac blossom is characteristically soft to the touch.

OK, OK, maybe I’m a bit of a spring addict… I’m like a bear coming out of hibernation, biologist version!

Lilas avec un papillon
Photo : Judith Donker

Responsible Harvesting

Let’s get back to our subject, or rather, to our lilacs. It is not an endangered plant. In fact, the trees make plenty of offshoots and it’s easy to share with the neighbors. You can pick the flowers all you want. There really are a lot on a tree, so you won’t be taking food away from the insects.

However, it is important not to damage the tree when picking. Use pruning shears to cut the clumps. Without a good cutting tool, you risk breaking the branches, swearing and possibly injuring yourself, as the branches are very soft and not very brittle.

Choose the flowers under the tree, those that are protected from the rain: they will have more taste. They should be fully open, but not damaged. I’ve read on some sites that dark flowers are tastier than white ones, but I haven’t tested it myself because… well, I just have a purple lilac at home.

Once you have a good harvest, go home: the fun begins!

On Your Marks, Get Set, Sort!

Make yourself comfortable to detach each flower from its stem. This sorting step is very important, since the stem tastes very green, while the flower’s aroma is very delicate. If you leave the stems, your infusion, syrup, sugar will taste only like chlorophyll.

Take advantage of this to remove the little bugs that you will come across 😉

When this is done, you have a choice to make: are you overly clean or a little dirty?

Let me explain. When you start picking, you wash everything thoroughly to remove bugs, animal urine, dirt and other grime. This is not the laidback method, but it is the recommended method.

Personally, the more the years go by, the more tolerant I become. After all, if I can pick a chili pepper from my garden and eat it while picking the others, it’s as dusty or potentially dirty as what grew in my lilac tree next door.

If I rinse a carrot with a garden hose before eating it and don’t even peel it to cook it, why should I endlessly brush my wild mushrooms to remove the slightest residue of soil, risking damage?

If I pick the little wild strawberries that I probably trampled once or twice and eat them… it’s okay, right?

In short, as my mother likes to say: “I put anything in my mouth”!

Spongebob Squarepants Eating GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Back to my lilac flowers. If you want to wash them, gently run them under water. The more you wash them, the more you take away their aroma. That’s why I, don’t tell anyone, don’t wash my flowers!

My arguments when people tell me it’s yucky:

The flower has only been open for two or three days, so there’s probably less dust on it than on my butter dish;

Microscopic bugs won’t go away with a spray of water anyway;

You filter the finished product, so the little dirt will go away after brewing anyway (unless you’re making a sugar, in which case I recommend you be even more careful when sorting).

In short, it’s entirely your decision and no one will judge you for being too clean, but if you decide to be medium clean like me, you have good arguments… or you can serve your lilac syrup to your guests without telling them too…

Cooking Lilac

There are several recipes on the internet: 52 g of lilac flowers, 197 ml of water, 168.2 g of sugar, two slices of a lemon of 18 cm in circumference, boil on a full moon evening until Orion is in the axis of Jupiter…

Yeah… the problem with these ultra-precise recipes is that they’re just a lot of hooey! Your flowers may not smell as good as the neighbor’s, your personal taste may not be the same either, and in the end, even the power of your oven or the thickness of your pan may influence the speed of evaporation of your water. So here’s my advice: trust yourself.

Cooking is done from the heart, not from a recipe (how nice!). That’s easy for me to say as someone who cooks a lot, but it’s all about practice. Try it, taste it and you’ll know when it’s ready.

Boisson de lilas
Photo : solod_sha

I’ll give you a general idea of different processes though:

Syrup: Put your flowers in a saucepan with some lemon juice (or slices if you have them) and just cover with water. Put about the same amount of sugar as water and bring to a boil. Simmer until you like the taste. It takes about 20 minutes. Some people leave the syrup in the fridge for a few days before straining it, but I’ve never felt the need to do so. Strain once or twice with a fine sieve. Delicious in cocktails or on desserts.

Herbal tea: Can you make tea? Same thing. About 10 minutes of infusion in hot water or a few hours in cold water, and since it’s quite subtle, I recommend mixing in your lilac with other flowers, herbs or fruits. Some people prefer to dry the flowers in the sun before infusing them, that’s okay too.

Sugar: If you are a fan of vanilla sugar, try lilac sugar. Just put your flowers in an airtight sugar container for a few weeks. That’s it! A fragrant springtime sugar!

Sucre de lilas
Photo : RitaE

You can’t poison yourself with lilac, so go ahead and experiment! Lilac ice cream? A cake frosting? Go for it! Let me know how it turns out.

Pharmacological Properties

Lilac leaf extract is used in some skin products, including anti-aging and acne creams. That’s about all I’ve found in terms of virtues in scientific studies.

However, if we turn to the virtues, let’s say “unproven”, we find a whole range of relaxing and soothing effects. Lilac is sweet, it smells good and maybe its smell puts us in the right frame of mind to relax?

In any case, if you like the smell of lilac, I don’t see why you shouldn’t put some in your bedroom to help you sleep or in your bath to relax your muscles. Even if it’s just a placebo, the important thing is that we feel good in our bodies, so treat yourself to a little (or a lot) of lilac!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

1 comment on “In Mother Nature’s Garden: Lilacs

  1. Dan Bolton

    In the early 1990’s I used to drive the few extra miles north to eat lunch at Hulda Klager’s (sp.) lilac garden in Woodland Washington before starting on the afternoon shift. All of the new Spring growth made lunch relaxing, but difficult to leave.

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