Nature-Based Learning: Learning through the Lens of Lilac

This week with Lilac as our point of entry, we’re getting curious and learning through the lens of food, cultural heritage, and habitat.

Now that we have turned the corner from May to June, notice the changes through your senses. Your senses can tell you what time of the year it is without even looking at a calendar. Just the sound the trees make as their young green leaves tussle together in the treetops when it’s breezy before a rainstorm is enough to signal the time of year. The next time there’s a wind, notice the sound of the trees. How does the sound differ from the winter months when the leaves are on the ground, or in the autumn when they are crisp and turning colors? Layer upon this dance between wind and leaves the changing soundscape of the birds, insects, and frogs, and you can observe what time of the year it is merely through sound. Invite your sense of smell to the table and the conversation deepens, accessing memories through the scent of blossoms, dirt, and summer rains.


Lilacs are in bloom right now, and unlike the intoxicating smell of Lily-of-the-Valley, which were in full bloom last week, the equally intoxicating scent of lilacs can be captured through taste. If you have access to Lilac blossoms growing safely away from the road and toxic chemicals, give these recipes a try while they are in bloom: Lilac honeyLilac cocktailsLilac waterLilac pavlovasLilac scones, and Lilac syrup. These recipes capture the essence of this flower and are delicious ways to compare and contrast the smell and flavor of other flowers, like lavender and violets. How does our sense of smell and taste combine? What biochemistry is involved with smell, and how does our brain receive information and translate it into memories and emotions? Check out these TED-Ed videos, “How do we smell?” to learn about the biochemistry, and “How to master your sense of smell” to discover the art of smelling. Between the two, learn how smell, taste, and memory are connected through the olfactory nerves.


Learning the scientific name of plants can lead us to learn about the historical context of a flower, it’s place within cultural heritage, and taxonomy. For instance, the scientific name for Lilac is Syringa vulgaris. Vulgaris is Latin for “common” (common Lilac), and the scientific name for Syringa is derived from the Greek word “syrinx” which means pipe. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Greek mythology, Syrinx was a nymph and a follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” Those reeds were the hollow branches of Lilac.

Word origin is one path to take when looking through the lens of habitat during the season of lilac blooms. Another path is towards the cultivation, propagation, and care for Lilac in your home garden. They’re pretty sturdy perennials that can live up to 100 years. If you ever see a large lilac bush oddly growing in the middle of a field, the chance is there was a farmhouse that once stood nearby. In this video, “The Dirt: Lilacs,” home gardeners can learn about caring for lilacs. It also can help strengthen your appreciation for lilac shrubs in the home gardens of others and within community accessible botanical gardens.


Lilac has a strong presence in our cultural heritage. You can see evidence in annual events that celebrate this fragrant shrub. While they are not taking place this year, festivals like the Lilac Festival in Rochester, NY, and Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University have marked the season with cultural celebrations.

Attendance to these festivals, close observation in your garden or nearby botanical garden, and review of lilac renditions by famous and contemporary artists can support multidisciplinary learning while strengthening a sense of place. Paintings to compare and contrast include, Lilacs in a Window by American artist Mary Cassatt and Lilac in the Sun by Claude Monet.

Photo credit: Lilac Infused Honey (c) Sienna Wildfield.

Nature-Based Learning with Curly Willow on the Westfield River. Nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains on the east branch of the Westfield River, Curly Willow on the Westfield is an emerging space for the passionately curious. A convergence of mindfulness and community-based education. Member, Community-Based Education Network™.

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