TEXT BY ELIZABETH CHOI
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SARAH SZWAJKOS
Scores of the fragrant, flowering shrubs lend color to a waterfront garden in Northport.
Dr. George Holmes, a retired veterinarian, knows exactly how he’ll spend the sunny days from mid-May to early June: hosting friends and friends of friends who have wrangled invitations to his Northport home to witness the spectacle of more than 100 lilacs in full, gaudy bloom.
My tour starts at the house, a modest red-clapboard Cape overlooking 3 acres sloping gently to Penobscot Bay. We hop into his little red golf cart, then putter over a path of mown grass through a flower garden shaded by a few venerable oaks and edged by white picket fencing and arbors. We pass beds planted with hostas, gillenias, daffodils, clematis, forget-me-nots, and others not yet in flower. Holmes has no training in landscape design and planted his garden entirely by eye. “Like a painter who uses a bit of color here and sees if it works,” he says.
Then come the lilacs. Sprays of flowers in every color the Syringa genus can produce. Pure white and white with a touch of cream or pink. Purples running from gentle violet to vivid magenta. One a chalky blue and another the shade of lemon cake. Most of the specimens are at least 8 feet tall, creating a kaleidoscope forest that muffles the tourist traffic running up and down Route 1 on just the other side of a high wooden fence. And everywhere, their soft fragrance in the air.
Holmes is in his 70s and walks with a cane because of a bad knee from years of kneeling in the garden, but he’s still active and his mind is sharp. He can tell you about every hybrid from memory. How that one, named after President Lincoln, is considered a real true blue. How those over there were developed by Russian botanists behind the Iron Curtain. He reaches over and plucks a branch heavy with glossy white flowers, each with a dainty yellow center, and points out that this hybrid has more than the common four petals per blossom.
His favorite lilac in his extensive collection, however, is of uncertain provenance. It started out as an anonymous seedling rescued out of the compost pile that six years later revealed itself as a beauty in lavender-pink. “I said, if I ever have a granddaughter, I will name it after her,” he says. “Then, I had one! So this one is called Ana-Sofia.”
At the end of the garden path, we emerge from the lavish cocoon of lilacs into the no-nonsense of a New England orchard as rows of more than 100 apple and crab apple trees come into view. Yet, there, off to the side, are also some of the 65 magnolias scattered about the property, more reminiscent of South Carolina than Maine.
“I became the crazy plant collector, and I didn’t mean to,” he says with a sheepish smile as we head back to the house. Then, with the offer of a cutting of my choice, our tour comes to an end. At least until next summer.