Lilacs are bushes that may, depending on the variety, grow to over 25 feet tall. Lilacs produce stalks of fragrant flowers that can be white, pink, red, blue or purple, although most people envision the purple flowers when thinking of lilacs. There are 26 known species of lilacs with over 4,000 different cultivars.
Lilacs have been cultivated since ancient times. Lilacs play a role in Greek mythology. Its use in that mythology indicates that lilac cultivation dates back to prehistoric times. According to Greek mythology, Pan, the god of the forests and fields, became enthralled with the nymph Syringa. Syringa was frightened because Pan had been chasing her through the forests. She turned herself into a fragrant flowering bush to escape his advances.
Because lilacs bloom so early, they are strongly associated with spring, renewal, and fresh starts. The year-to-year differences in timing of the lilac bloom are said to indicate whether spring will be early or late. Its early blooming on the heels of a cold winter also symbolizes hardiness. The lilac is the state flower of New Hampshire, where it symbolizes the hardy character of the state's citizens.
Two colors of the lilac are especially meaningful. The white lilac represents youthful innocence and purity. Purple lilacs often symbolize first love, while in some contexts purple lilacs can suggest protection.
Lilacs are sometimes said to stand for confidence and sometimes said to symbolize pride or youthful innocence. Lilacs have been used in many literary works, including the famous poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman. In this poem the lilac is used in a symbolic trinity with a star and and a thrush. Whitman uses the star to represent Abraham Lincoln, the thrush to represent the poet's attempt to come to terms with Lincoln's death, and lilacs to symbolize life after death.
In parts of the Mediterranean, the lilac is strongly associated with Easter. This association comes from the frequency with which the lilac blooms around Easter. In Greece, Lebanon, and Cyprus, its strong association with this Christian festival is the root of its local name, paschalia.