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Colors, scents aplenty at Jim Lumley's Lilacland in Pelham

  • Jim Lumley stands amid lilac trees in Lilacland in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley, owner of Lilacland in Pelham, is also an artist. Visitors can take in the flowers' perfume and view the paintings in his studio.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Sensation, a variety of lilac at Lilacland in Pelham Friday.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley's Lilacland  in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley's Lilacland  in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley's Lilacland  in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley's Lilacland  in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley stands amid lilac trees in Lilacland in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Jim Lumley stands amid lilac trees in Lilacland in Pelham Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

As Jim Lumley, proprietor of Lilacland in Pelham, headed down the gently sloping hills of his country oasis on Harkness Road one day last week, he was spotted wearing a purple shirt and a purple striped tie.

He is a real estate agent, as well as a caretaker of more than 200 varieties of lilacs, and he has to dress the part, he said wryly. Lumley, 71, grew up surrounded by lilacs in every hue of purple, pink and white. When his parents, Mabel and Albert Lumley, passed away in the 1980s, Lumley inherited the 10.5-acre property and continued their tradition of opening it up to visitors for free during lilac season, from mid May through early June. The lilacs cover about three acres.

“I wanted to do what my parents did, which was to invite other people to enjoy the beauty of this place and share it with others,” he said. “They had this tradition right from the beginning, that once the lilacs were blooming, people could come see them.”

Albert and Mabel Lumley moved to the property at 24 Harkness Road, which was very much in the country in the 1930s, after purchasing an 1834 Greek Revival house from Prescott, one of the towns that was inundated with water to make the Quabbin Reservoir. They dismantled the house, which cost only $50, re-erected it on Harkness Road and set about clearing the surrounding land. In the late 1940s, Albert Lumley, a track coach at Amherst College, joined with his friend Charles Cole, then president of Amherst, to plant a wide selection of apple, fruit and nut trees on the land, in addition to flowering shrubs and trees that were planted earlier.

Jim Lumley said he remembers walking through the newly planted orchard as a young child with the poet Robert Frost, during Frost’s residency at Amherst College.

Soil suited for lilacs

The orchard thrived for a time, but in the 1950s it began to fail. Albert Lumley had the soil tested and discovered it was slightly alkaline and would be better suited to hardy and largely disease-resistant lilacs, which need minimal care, fertilizer and pruning.

From that point on, the Lumleys focused on planting lilacs, acquiring them from specialized lilac nurseries, major collections such as the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and on their travels abroad. Lumley said his parents acquired rare specimens from Yugoslavia and from Russia and eventually amassed some 300 varieties. Eventually, the nation’s top arboretums added to their collections with specimens from Lilacland, he said.

Today, the Lilacland collection is closer to about 200 varieties, and while Lumley claims not to have as green a thumb as his parents, he and his wife Mimi have labored for many years to keep the lilacs thriving amid the remaining fruit, nut and dogwood trees on the property.

At one point, Lilacland was a destination spot for serious lilac connoisseurs from across the country. The International Lilac Society had its annual meeting on the property in May 1977, Lumley said. Today, most of the visitors are not serious lilac aficionados, but come for the striking beauty of the place.

Strolling the grounds

Last week most of the bushes were in full flower, with the exception of some late-blooming varieties. The day was warm and windy and with each gust, a visitor was treated to the wafting fragrance of lilac in the air, the very definition of purple, in the olfactory sense.

Lumley has told the story of Lilacland so many times, he is somewhat loath to repeat it, handing out a printed brochure to visitors instead of rehashing the history. But take a walk with him and he clearly can’t help but be swept up in the beauty of the showy flowers and their intense perfume.

Lumley explained that lilacs originated in the mountainous regions of China. He said lilac historians believe that around 1563 a Flemish scholar, who was ambassador to the sultan of Turkey, brought the first lilac to Vienna from Constantinople. The plant soon became a favorite in Europe ,and when Pilgrims came to America they brought the lilac with them.

Lumley said the Northeast climate is similar to that of southern China and lilacs thrive here. They have long been associated with the region. At Lilacland, Lumley’s father insisted that each lilac be on its own rootstock and not be grafted. As a result, the Lumley lilacs produce their own baby plants, which Jim Lumley periodically replants as genetic copies of the mother plant and puts them up for sale. In addition, because these lilacs are grown on their own root, the plants spread in a wider fashion than many nursery-bought plants, with some spanning 20 feet.

Lumley pointed out different varieties on the property, from Emile Lemoine, an old French lilac with fragrant powder-blue flowers to Lucie Baltet, a shell-pink flower with smaller petals. The range of varieties at Lilacland is spectacular to behold and the pendulous clusters of flowers come in various sizes and colors, from the deep purple of Charles Joly to a French double-flowered pure-white lilac called Miss Ellen Willmott. There’s even a variety called Sensation, which bears deep-purple flowers nattily edged in white. Other varieties include Primrose, which is a creamy white in its early years, growing into the palest yellow as it ages, and Maid’s Blush, a soft pink lilac with a fuller petal.

Most of the lilac varieties have a heart-shaped leaf, but some are more elongated, similar to the shape of a canoe.

Lumley seemed to know nearly every variety by sight. Many lilacs are named after the people who hybridized them from the original Syringa vulgaris, which is Latin for common lilac. Today, there are about 10,000 varieties of lilacs, all originating from the first-born Syringa vulgaris.

“They are named for their cultivars or their wives or the streets they lived on or their mistresses,” Lumley said.

And while all lilacs have a distinctive, sometimes overpowering aroma, the scent is different from one variety to the next, he insisted, and changes during the day. The flowers are more fragrant in the early morning and in the early evening, when, Lumley said, their scent differences are more noticeable.

Low-key operation

It is the combination of the flower’s heady perfume and the brief grandeur of the beautiful flowers that draw visitors to Lilacland each spring. Lumley doesn’t advertise, relying on word of mouth and the promotional material that he has scattered about in his barn-turned-studio. Its presence is announced by a small simple white sign out front with purple lettering reading “Lilacland. Dogs on Leash. No picking. Welcome.”

Inspired by the natural beauty surrounding him, Lumley became a landscape painter and made a living as an artist for a time before becoming a real estate agent as well. He built a real estate business in the area until 1979 when he sold it and went to art school. He worked as a professional artist for about 20 years and then returned to real estate after inheriting the expansive property and its high taxes.

He continues to paint, however, and still shows in some galleries. Visitors to Lilacland can tour his studio and take in his paintings, drawings and prints, along with the fragrance of the flowers.

Given their bloom time, lilacs are strongly associated with Mother’s Day, Lumley said, and this year there were about 600 people wandering the grounds May 12. One day last week there were a handful of people at Lilacland, sniffing this flower and that.

Ruth and Martin Silberberg of Pelham, who live up the road, were there for their annual visit to celebrate their anniversary.

“We come here because it’s just such a magical place that is absolutely beautiful and smells really wonderful,” Ruth Silberberg said. “It has a very special feeling about it.”

Geraldine Annear of New Salem walked the property with her grandniece Michelle Scott of Athol, snapping close-ups of blooms with her camera’s zoom lens. Annear said she frequently brings friends to Lilacland and on this day was awaiting the arrival of one from Florida. Annear knew the elder Lumleys.

“I was worried when Al Lumley died, that something would be lost here,” she said. “But his son Jim obviously is doing what he can to keep it nice and to let the public come visit. We wouldn’t be happy if we couldn’t come wander about here every spring.”

It was Scott’s first visit and she was struck by the strong scent that hit her the minute she opened her car door in the parking lot.

“It’s an amazing place,” she said.

Something about the scent

There is something about lilacs that nearly everyone seems to love.

“I think it’s the sweetness of their smell and their connotation with spring,” Annear said. “The scent gets embedded in the brain.”

Wayne and Barbara Elsworth, who own a travel business in the Virgin Islands where they live on a boat all winter, return to their Leverett home every year in time to see Lilacland.

“It’s just spectacular, absolutely gorgeous,” Barbara Elsworth said.

The couple said they often visit public and private gardens in their travels, but have never seen anything quite like Lilacland.

“It’s lovely, all the colors and the smells and the sense of peace and relaxation,” said Wayne Elsworth.

He remembers gathering lilacs for his mother on Mother’s Day as a child in Albany, N.Y.

“I would put them on our doorstep, ring the doorbell, and run away,” he recalled. “I always associate them with Mother’s Day.”

The feast of lilacs is brief, but should last a bit longer, Lumley said. The recent spell of cold weather prolonged the lilac’s short lifespan and he expects that the fragrant blooms will last through this week, with a few late-blooming varieties arriving later.

And Lumley will be out there, perhaps dressed in purple, perhaps not, mowing the lawn to ensure safe passage and chatting with visitors in his gracious and social way. And even though the sign at the entrance says, “no picking,” he is more than likely to snap a few blooms and hand them to a visitor. Lilacs are in his blood.

“Lilacland is a tradition that my parents started and I want to keep going, for as long as I can,” he said.

Legacy Comments1

I'm from Chicopee, Mass, ... and I've tried for years to get Lilac to grow on my home property. No such luck, ... I'm doing something wrong. My wife and I will make the drive to Pelham to view this fantastic "backyard" venue this Memorial Day weekend. The thought I have is this, ... perhaps the sale of grafted plants would help keep this gift to us all thriving in the future. If they could sell the plants, ... educate us (we ill informed), ... even upon special days that could be posted in the Gazette, ... I'm sure there would be buyers. I know I would purchase at least 3 to 6 of differing varieties for my yard. Just a suggestion which I hope they act upon. From "Lilacland", we'll head to the "Butterfly" shop and make a purchase, .... $$$. Like Lilacs, ... did anyone expect "butterflies" would bring a crowd? Peasaint (Chicopee, Mass)

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