Califonia Bountiful

Lilac farm harvests flowers and memories

Apr./May 2012 California Bountiful magazine

Dennis and Elizabeth Kilcoyne took a chance growing lilacs on their Los Angeles County farm. The crop and family have thrived.

Brought to the United States from Europe by the early colonists, carried by covered wagon to the West and planted in dooryards of early homesteads, lilacs continue to be a favorite decorative landscaping plant and sought-after cut flower.

Some say the lilac's memory-evoking scent is part of the reason for its enduring popularity.

In the rugged Sierra Pelona Mountains, in the high desert about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, Elizabeth Kilcoyne grows acres of lilacs that she harvests each spring and sells to wholesale flower businesses, retail florists and farmers market vendors. She also sells directly to the many visitors who stop by the family ranch to walk the fragrant fields and buy the flowers and potted plants.

She said her phone starts ringing in February, often while a dusting of snow is still on the ground, with callers asking if the lilacs are ready yet. Some are planning weddings or parties and want the flowers by a certain date. Lilac bloom is sweet, but short, usually lasting only a few weeks.

Drew and Meghan Pirtle chose to marry at her family's lilac farm while the fields were in bloom.

"I tell them it's up to Mother Nature. We never know exactly when our lilac fields will bloom, so I don't make promises," she said.

Since there's increased demand for white lilac varieties for weddings, the farm has increased its white plantings, but, like farming any crop, bloom time depends on climate, location, soil, weather and, to some extent, color shades. White, violet, blue, pink, magenta and purple pop open at slightly different times.

Some lilac enthusiasts say the strength of the flower fragrance is a reflection of how cold it was the previous winter. In the crisp air of early spring in the high desert, Kilcoyne says she's not sure whether temperature affects fragrance. But she agrees that for lilacs to produce good flowers the plants need cold winters, which is why the crop does well where she lives.

Initially, Kilcoyne and her husband, Dennis, didn't know much about lilacs. They'd purchased a small ranch about 20 years ago and tried raising a few head of cattle.

"Cows aren't very good for people commuting to the city to work," she said, "but we knew we wanted to produce something on our land."

The Kilcoyne family works together to tend and harvest the fragrant crop.

They did some research on appropriate crops for their area, talked to vendors at the Los Angeles flower market to gauge interest, checked with a couple of local ranchers who already were growing lilacs and took the plunge into the commercial cultivation of Syringa vulgaris, the botanical name for lilacs.

"When we started, we bought as many plants as we could with the money we were able to squirrel away," she said. "Then we planted on weekends while still keeping our jobs in the city."

Dennis Kilcoyne is a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective; Elizabeth worked in textiles.

"At first, I sold the cuttings out of the back of my Nissan beside the road," she said.

When Elizabeth became pregnant with their first child, the Kilcoynes decided to try and make a go of commercial lilac production, crossing their fingers that the fields would supplement the family income. The lilacs thrived and so did the Kilcoyne children, two sons, as well as a son and daughter from a previous marriage.

Visitors to the farm can buy lilac plants for their own gardens.

"Basically, I carried the kids around in a backpack and worked lilacs," Elizabeth said. "I was determined to stay home with my kids, but there were times when I wondered how I was going to get rid of all those flowers."

Today, the Kilcoyne Lilac Farm ( regularly sells out and the ranch has also become a popular spring "day-cation," with families driving up from the Los Angeles area to visit the lilac fields in bloom.

Last spring, the Kilcoynes celebrated the wedding of their daughter, Meghan, at the ranch, barely getting the last of the lilac blooms sold before the ceremony began. The house and grounds were decorated with lilacs, the reception tent festooned with the fragrant flowers.

"They'd been gone on their honeymoon a few days when the phone rang," Elizabeth recalled. "It was Meghan. She'd been touring a historic building in Boston and the scent came to her, she said. The docent kept talking, the tourists didn't seem to notice, but she smelled lilacs. She smelled home."

Meghan told her stepmother that she and her new husband went outside the building and looked around. Sure enough, there it was in the back—a large, old lilac bush in bloom.

"Meghan said she just had to call home."

More online: Planting lilacs for flowers and fragrance

Kate Campbell

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest