The oldest lilacs in New Hampshire date back to at least 1750. These are the purple lilacs (our state flower) located at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth.
Did you know there are 20 Lilac Species, 15 Lilac Species (Hybrids), over 1500 named lilac varieties? Lilacs have 2 centers of origin, Eastern Europe and the Orient.
History of the Lilac
The first time lilacs are mentioned in New Hampshire history is in 1750 when Governor Wentworth enlarged his house and the plantings around it. Since the only plant that has ever been planted near the house was a lilac, we believe it was there in 1750. Lilacs were already known in the colonies but few records exist, apparently because the lilac came in as a personal family possession, not part of the agricultural inventory. Therefore, its appearance by the kitchen door was appreciated but never recorded. Although, whenever it came into the state the lilac took root, and, like the hardy settlers who brought it, became a permanent feature in this new world.
The popularity of the lilac grew during the late 1800’s with the introduction of the French hybrids; so it is not surprising that someone should suggest that it be designated the state flower. However, it was not a shoo-in and other flowers were proposed, as can be seen in the following excerpt from Leon Anderson’s History: Colorful Sessions On Flowers from the Manual for the General Court, Page 2, 1981.
The purple lilac became New Hampshire’s official State flower, in a most colorful manner, in the 1919 legislative session. It was opposed by nine other flowers, including the apple blossom, the purple aster, the wood lily, water lily, and goldenrod. The committee’s recommendation was approved by the House on February 20th and sent up to the Senate for concurrence.
The Senate developed considerable purple lilac sentiment and also considered the buttercup. Unable to muster majority support for any flower, the 24 members of the Senate turned to a novel solution. They placed the names of three flowers in a hat, blindfolded Senate Clerk Earle C. Gordon of Canaan, and ordered him to draw a name. The purple lilac, the mayflower and the purple aster went into the lottery, and the latter won the draw.
The Senate reported its unique decision to the House, which clung to the apple blossom, and the impasse was referred to a committee of conference.
The 10-man conference committee soon became stalemated on the flower fuss, and turned to another unique solution. It asked two botanists, Professor Arthur Houston Chivers of Dartmouth and Professor Ormond Butler of the state college to arbitrate the dilemma, and agreed to accept their decision.
Within a few days the two botanists informed the conference committee that they had also become stalemated. Faced with this deadlock added to its own deadlock, the conference committee voted eight-to-two for the purple lilac. Two members stuck to the apple blossom to the bitter end.
The House and Senate concurred with the committee compromise, without further argument, and Governor John H. Bartlett of Portsmouth signed the purple lilac into law on March 28, 1919.
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