At this time in May, those driving down Adams Road in Troy may be tempted to slow down, thanks to a riot of lush lilac blooms that adorn the grounds of North Hills Christian Reformed Church. The head-turning, enticing grove isn't just any patch of lilacs.
Located in the churchyard on the east side of Adams just north of Big Beaver Road, the remaining lilac patch, about 150 by 60 feet, once stretched across what is now Adams Road. When that road was built, much of the grove was torn down. Then came the church.
“For some reason or another, every time we expanded the church, we had to cut down or encroach upon the lilacs,” recalled Jon Feikens, who has been a church member since 1972 and has seen three expansions on the property. He and his son, Jeffrey, of Birmingham, tend regularly to the patch.
“We’ve recently expanded a patch on the eastern side of the property (along with a small trail) from shoots transplanted from the main patch along Adams Road,” Jeffrey said. “They should be in full bloom soon.”
Lilac lovers such as Karen Johnson will be one of several passersby to take in the blooms. The proud owner of dwarf varieties says she's all about spring's sweet-smelling lilacs. "My lilacs get so full that I bring many into work for people to put at their desk," said Johnson, who is a cleaning specialist/team leader for Ask Alice Cleaning in Troy. "When the ones near my window bloom, I'll look out to an explosion of color."
A couple of trees or a grove like the one in Troy, lilac blooms are certainly enticing.
“We’ve seen topographical maps of them and know the grove was huge,” added Jon Feikens. Representatives from nearby Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills also have documented the lilacs, say North Hills staffers. “It’s a guess that they were planted in the 1880s,” Jon said.
Historical records reveal that the Solomon Caswell home, built in 1832, once stood on these grounds, near the lilacs. Caswell was one of Troy’s earliest settlers. Today, the Caswell home is located at the Troy Museum and Historic Village.
It’s difficult to say who first planted the first lilac bushes. “We surmise that someone in the Caswell family planted those lilacs,” said the Rev. Randy Engle, who pastors North Hills church and lives in Troy. “We do have evidence that a huge tree on our property was planted by Mrs. Caswell in the 1800s.”
Engle is happy to see that his grounds committee is restoring the fragrant swathe of breathtaking plants. “With a campus this size, it takes plenty of volunteers to keep the grounds beautiful," he said. "We are now bringing it back to its former glory.”
Jon explained that the restoration takes several steps. “We are establishing plant roots in additional areas,” said the avid gardener, who has been fond of landscaping since he was a teen. Many of their transplanted lilacs have died, but Jon guessed that half were successful. The grounds volunteers also installed brick edging around the plot. They also cut the patch back, with chainsaws, six or so years ago to encourage new growth.
As for the men’s motivation, it’s all about history, beauty — and the scent. “They are usually one of the first things to bloom in the spring,” said Jon. “And they are easy to tend.”
Added Jeffrey: “Fragrance is key. You walk out there in the morning or afternoon on a spring day and you get hit by the scent of all these lilac blossoms at the same time … it’s a great place to be.”
Tips for growing and tending lilacs
These tips come from area gardeners and landscapers:
• Easy to grow. “Lilacs are one of the most easy-going of the shrubs/trees in the landscape,” said Deborah Friedman, a certified landscape designer who owns Deborah Friedman Designs in Bloomfield Hills. "They require very little care and tending to overall.”
• Trim liberally. "I trim back my lilac plants in the fall, or they get crazy," says Johnson.
A place in the sun. “Generally, lilacs need a location which has at least six hours of sun per day,” said Friedman. “If your location does not have enough sun, you may miss out on those fragrant lilac blooms.”
Added Deborah Lee, owner of Shades of Green in Rochester Hills: “Lilacs tend to develop powdery mildew if shaded.”
• Drainage details. “Choose a location that has good drainage. Lilacs prefer to be moist, but not saturated, so don't choose a spot prone to being soaked,” said Friedman. “Work compost into your planting hole to amend the soil if necessary.”
• Give them space. “They’re best if planted in an open area which allows for good air circulation around the plant,” said Lee, whose Shades of Green nursery sells Dwarf Korean, Miss Kim lilac and Ivory Silk Japanese lilac trees and a handful of lilac shrubs.
“Plant lilac shrubs about four feet apart,” added Friedman. “This will lessen root competition and overcrowding as the plant matures in size. Even if your intention is a hedge wall of lilacs, they will still grow together, over time, at this spacing.” If you are choosing to plant a lilac tree, be sure it is not planted too close to your house, Friedman added. “Lilac trees can grow over 20 feet tall, so choose a spot with nothing overhead that the tree may interfere with, or too close to the house so as to restrict the canopy.”
• First-year fussing. The first year is an important one for watering, Friedman said. “Keep lilacs consistently moist, but not saturated. This will aid in blooms, and lessen the stress on the plant when suffering from lack of water, or oversaturation. Lilacs do not require to be fertilized in their first year, just watered evenly and consistently is all they need.”
Added Colleen Maiura of Lowe’s: “As with any new plants, it is important to water them daily until they are established and the roots have a chance to take hold.” The home and garden center sells Pink James MacFarlane, Lavender Palabin and Lavender Dwarf Korean lilac varieties.
• Prune for perfection. “Prune out dead flowers as soon as they fade,” said Lee.