Harbingers of spring

After a sunny couple of days, we’re back to the damp pea soup that has been the hallmark of this winter. We’ve lived in the Sacramento Valley for a long time now, and I can’t remember a winter that had quite this much fog. (I should add, though, that we live just a few miles from the Yolo Bypass. That’s why our part of town has more fog than North or West Davis.)


View from my home office window this morning

However, signs of change are starting to appear. The most visible harbingers of early spring are our violets. While in some parts of the country, particularly in the East, violets are common and often considered lawn weeds, they’re a bit of a rarity here in the Sacramento Valley. In fact, we were not able to find violets at any of our local nurseries so I finally bought some from Bluestone Perennials. They have developed nicely in the last couple of years and have not strayed from where I planted them.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) blooming in our back yard

What we have is Viola odorata, or sweet violet. Maybe this particular species is less invasive than the “wild” violets cursed by people in online gardening forums? All I know is that the scent is heavenly. You can smell it just walking by.

Sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Another harbinger of spring is lilac (Syringa vulgaris). Just yesterday I noticed swelling buds on our ‘Blue Skies’ hybrid, planted in the spring of 2000. It should be in full bloom by late March, maybe sooner if we have an early spell of warm weather (‘Blue Skies’ blooms earlier than common or French lilac). To me, the scent of lilac—much like violets—embodies springtime like nothing else. It wafts into the house through the open kitchen window and instantly wipes away all the stress and tension I might feel that day. OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but you get the idea.

Swelling buds on our lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Blue Skies’)

Like violets, common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) may be common elsewhere but in our part of California it is not. The problem is that Syringa vulgaris, native to the colder regions of the Balkans in southeastern Europe, needs cold winters with sub-freezing temperatures for proper dormancy (in the U.S. that corresponds to zones 3-7). In mild-winter climates it typically doesn’t set flowers, or if it does, they are sparse and not very fragrant. For that reason, lilac wasn’t much grown in the warmer parts of California. However, with the advent of low-chill hybrids like our ‘Blue Skies’ things have changed. These hybrids bloom well even in areas where the thermometer rarely drops below freezing. Now winter-challenged gardeners in California, Arizona, Texas and the South can have their lilac and eat it too!

Common or French lilac (Syringa vulgaris)
Photo source: Wikipedia

Our experience with ‘Blue Skies’ has been nothing but positive. It is planted next to our back yard lawn, and it gets all its water from overspray or what whatever moisture its roots collect—most likely they extend right under the lawn. Our lilac has never been fertilized, and it has bloomed reliably every year since we planted it. In addition, we haven’t had any problems with suckering, apparently an issue with common lilac. I was amazed to read on the web site of Harlequin’s Gardens in Boulder, Colorado that:

…the tendency to sucker and the ease of transplanting are primary reasons for the rapid spread of lilacs across America. By the 1650s, lilacs were growing all over the colonies, and later they were carried west by the pioneers. I recently pruned some lilacs that were planted by miners in the rocky foothills above Boulder. I can just imagine some rough traveler, burning with gold fever and the Colorado sun, sharing his canteen with a lilac sucker.

Click here to read the full article. It contains a wealth of interesting and useful information about lilac care and maintenance.


  1. Two things: 1) Every spring I think about getting a lilac, but I need to find the right one -- something small that reblooms. Hopefully it's out there.

    2) I'm going to send you some of the common violets to see how they compare. I don't think they have much fragrance. They spread by seed -- you'll find a circle of seedlings around each parent plant. Maybe your cultivar is less fertile?
    It's not work, it's gardening!

  2. Alan, I'd be happy to try your violets. Ours are intensely fragrant and might be sterile because I've not spotted any seedlings at all.

    There ARE reblooming lilac hybrids now. One is called 'Josee' and the other 'Boomerang'. 'Boomerang' is supposed to be compact (4-5 ft tall x 5-6 ft. wide), so it might be perfect for your garden. I don't believe either of them is a low-chill hybrid so most likely they wouldn't bloom well in our climate. However, if I find any of them locally, I will give them a try.

  3. Remind me and you can get some violets from us the next time you are up. We have plenty, smell wonderful and spread by runner and seed! Easy to control tho! Is the lilac you got from up here still growing?

  4. Becky, I don't think we ever got lilac from you. The one we have is a Monrovia plant I bought in 2000. Yes on the lilacs!

  5. A little bit surprised to see you feature Lilac on your blog. A pleasant one as it's one of my favourite plants in the garden and has earned its rightful place despite not being 'exotic' in that sense.

    But the flowers are a pleasant sight in the spring, and so does the fragrance. Our Lilac does send out lots of suckers but are easy enough to control.


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