A lovefest for lilacs

Duluthian wants the world to know lilacs thrive here

Jim Lundstrom

A deciduous spring-blooming shrub is celebrated every year in Taos, New Mexico. It’s also celebrated in Spokane, Wash. And in Rochester, N.Y., it’s been celebrated since 1898. In fact, Rochester’s 10-day event is considered the largest free festival in North America.  

Now, Duluth joins the ranks of cities that honor the lilac, thanks to lilac-loving resident Linda Nervick, who unveiled her plans for Lilac Lovefest at a press conference held April 28 at Lilac Hill Greenhouse (formerly Engwall’s Greenhouse) in Hermantown.  

“They named it Lilac Hill just as I came up with this, so it’s very serendipitous,” she said.   Nervick doesn’t just want to celebrate the lilac. She’s on a mission to prove that this area “has the longest lilac season in the world,” she said. “This should be making the national news, is my mission. We’re going to prove we have the longest lilac season in the world.”  

She puts that down to the microclimates of the area.  

“The Twin Ports is made up of many microclimates,” she said. “Microclimates, along with Lake Superior’s fresh and very cold water, create a perfect and extended lilac-growing season in the Twin Ports area through early July.”  

The idea for the festival of lilacs came organically, Nervick said.  

“It happens to be my favorite flower,” she said. “As a child I would string them into necklaces. I’ve always had lilacs wherever I’ve lived.”  

When she moved from her native Duluth to Minneapolis for several years, she was happy to find a lilac tree in the backyard of her new home.   “I’d gone away for a week and the lilacs were gone. They dry up so fast in Minneapolis,” she said.  

It was when she returned to live in Duluth that she noticed something different about the lilacs here.  

“I’ve been watching the lilac season for the last couple of years. This is something that I just kind of become more and more aware of,” she said. “As things were progressing in my thought process, I thought, you know what, I can’t believe there are lilacs on Park Point in July. Then it occurred to me, wait a minute, I think we’ve got something here.”  

And thus the Lilac Lovefest was born. She had planned to spring the event on the community with all kinds of interactive activities to bring people together to honor the humble lilac, but the pandemic intervened.  

“This was scheduled to launch this spring, “ she said. “Now it’s going to be very virtual. We need this as a community right now. Everyone loves lilacs. Old people, young people, men, women, grannies and grandpas. There are so many lilac stories out there.”  

A Lilac Lovefest website has been created that offers ways for people to get involved in the inaugural event. The site includes a lilac trail map that Nervick promises will grow as she learns of more lilacs in the area.  

“I will be going around and taking photos of the different locations and will add them to the map. It’s a growing map,” she said. “The map will show where the best lilacs are. If you want to see great lilacs, go here and here and here. As they bloom, I’ll be giving people a heads up.”  

But, of course, first the lilacs have to bloom.  

“It’s always kind of a mystery to when they’ll pop.,” she said. “If we have a warm spring, they’ll pop out. What sustains them is the fog and rain, what we have in June. What people complain about in June is what makes the lilacs thrive. Get your umbrellas out and enjoy the lilac season.”  

There will also be a website announcement looking for the first lilac blooms in the area.  

“We already kind of know where the last blooms will be, along the lake is where you’re going to find the last blooms,” she said.  

Along with lilac information, the website includes a kids coloring contest, a woodcarving contest and a photo contest. A day of yoga is planned at Enger Tower, with lilacs.  

“Sometime down the road we’re going to have a parade,” Nervick said. “I’ve been talking with Lincoln Park and Ecolibrium3 about holding a parade.”  

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken some of the bloom off the event, Nervick promises “great things happening in the future” for the event.  

She also mentions that lilac flowers are edible, but advises not to eat them if anyone has been spraying nearby.  

Besides sprinkling lilac flowers in a salad, here are a few lilac recipes.  

Lilac-infused water

Fill a pitcher or large glass with fresh lilac blossoms, add water and allow to steep for an hour. You can continue infusing the same blossoms as long as you can smell their intoxicating scent.  

Lilac honey

Fill a sterilized jar with fresh blossoms, leaving a little room at the top. Pour honey over the flowers and cap. Allow to infuse for at least 6 weeks. No need to strain, just eat the flowers along with the honey. It’s great for using in recipes that call for honey, spreading on bread or adding to tea.  

Lilac syrup

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 cup lilac flowers

5 to 8 blueberries (optional, for color)

Combine the water and sugar over medium heat and stir until dissolved. Add the lilac flower and simmer for 10 minutes. To make it brightly hued, add some blueberries. Remove from heat, drain through a sieve, bottle and store in the refrigerator. Use on pancakes or as a simple syrup in cocktail recipes.  

Lilac wine

3-1/2 quarts lilac flowers

2-1/2 lb granulated sugar

2 lemons

7-1/2 pts water

1 tsp yeast nutrient

Champagne yeast

Put water on to boil. Rinse flowers and put in primary container. When water boils pour over flowers. Cover primary tightly and set aside for 48 hours. Strain flowers through nylon straining bag and squeeze to extract all flavor, then discard pulp. Stir sugar, yeast nutrient, juice of lemon or lactic acid into primary and stir until completely dissolved. Sprinkle dry yeast on top without stirring or add activated yeast culture to primary. Re-cover primary and ferment 7 days. Transfer liquid to secondary and fit airlock. Ferment 30 days and rack, top up and refit airlock. Rack again every 30 days until wine is clear and no longer dropping sediment. Rack into bottles and allow to age 3-6 months. [Adapted from George Leonard Herter's How to Make the Finest Wines at Home]

Lilac cordial

5 cups lilac blossoms

1 liter of water

1-1/4 pounds sugar

1.5 tsp citric acid (optional, but it is said to finish the flavor)

Rinse blossoms and place in glass or ceramic bowl. Bring sugar and water to boil, stirring. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove from heat and add citric acid (is using).Pour the hot syrup over the lilac flowers and stir gently. Cover the bowl with a lid and leave at room temperature for 24 hours, stirring severl times to keep the flowers from oxidizing. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate another two days. Strain the syrup and transfer to a sterile glass jar or bottle. Will keep refrigerated for two months. Dilute to taste with water. It’s said to go well with vodka and gin.  

And don’t throw away the flowers. Spread them on parchment paper on a baking sheet and put in the over at the lowest temperature for two to three hours, or until they are dried. They will have a chewy texture and delicious flavor. Use them as a garnish on desserts or in drinks.    

Lilac ice cream

2 to 4 handsful fresh lilac flowers

3 cups of your favorite milk (dairy, soy, hemp, etc.)

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup oil  

Combine the flowers, soy milk and sugar in a glass or porcelain bowl. Cover the bowl with a plate and steep for 2–4 days in the fridge. Remove the lilac flowers with a fork or a mesh strainer. Stir in the oil (almond or sunflower). Freeze the lilac flower ice cream in an ice cream maker.