General Description / Cultural Significance
Ukraine is the second largest country in Eastern Europe, a region of rolling plains dissected by rivers, valleys, and the picturesque Carpathian Mountains. When spring comes, moths, bees, and Ukrainians are beckoned to the landscape, drawn by the splendor of emerging brilliant purple flowers and their fresh, calming scent which needs no introduction: Lilac, Syringa vulgaris. The ancient country is made young again as city-goers flock to urban gardens and rural villagers wander outside to the hillsides and rocky slopes where Lilac energizes the air. A hermaphrodite and deciduous shrub, Lilac is the most common plant grown in house gardens, public green spaces, roadsides, and landscaping in Ukraine. The National Botanical Garden in Kyiv features more than twenty-one different cultivars of Lilac and more than a thousand individual bushes. Syringa vulgaris can be found growing wild in Ukraine’s woodlands and green hills, and many travelers come to Kyiv just to take a glance– and whiff– of the country’s magical Lilac.
Lilac’s botanical name tells the story of Syringa, a wood nymph of Greek mythology who transformed herself into a Lilac bush to evade the god Pan. Coincidentally, Lilac bushes make amazing flutes, and so Pan won out in crafting himself a flute from her wood. Overtime, shepherds have brought the myth to life, utilizing the hard, beautifully striped heart wood of Lilac to craft flutes and other small objects. Throughout Eastern Europe, Lilac has been a traditional funeral flower, placed inside caskets to show condolences and to naturally perfume the body. The plant’s flowers produce a useful green dye and the twigs produce an orange dye used around the house. Lilac has so prevalently become a part of modern folklore, that its meanings seem to contradict themselves: at one time, Lilac brought bad luck, at other times it has symbolized love and innocence. Regardless, the flower is universally beloved; even those who still hold their superstitions cannot resist the smell of its signature scent for long.
Syringa vulgaris is a permanent fixture of the traditional pharmacopeia of Eastern Europe. Lilac leaves have long been used as an astringent and a cleansing facewash. The leaves are infused as a tea and drunk as a de-wormer and cure for sore throats, fevers, and malaria. In traditional Eastern European medicine, Lilac leaves were chewed to help assuage diarrhea, rheumatism, and muscle aches. In the neighboring country of Poland, every single part of the Lilac plant was prized as a treatment for colds and coughs and some parts of the plant were commonly utilized to cure toothaches, digestive issues, skin wounds, and much more.
Today, Syringa vulgaris has been scientifically proven to be antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-nociceptive. Releasing Lilac’s aromatic essences in the form of essential oil or steam has proven useful for those suffering chronic depression and anxiety. Walk into any modern pharmacy and Lilac is prevalent, its flavor and scent added to soaps, lotions, hair products, and cleansers of all kinds. However, there is a good chance that the Lilac you might encounter is synthetic, as the flower’s essential oil cannot be extracted through the customary process for most plants, steam distillation. The closest thing to Lilac extract is a natural aromatic called Lilac CO2, however this is very expensive. Many herbalists seeking to create their own natural Lilac oils or tinctures do what Ukrainians have done for generations, and dry the fresh-picked petals of the Lilac flower. This, however, requires access to wild Lilac and a knowledge of responsibly foraging the plant. Increased reliance on synthetics could dissuade the world from investing in the long-term growth of Lilac, a plant whose behavior and sensitivity to long term temperature changes has made it a Geiger Counter for Ukraine’s changing climate.
Another floral symbol for Ukraine is the Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, which is the national flower of the country. More sunflowers are grown in Ukraine than anywhere else in the world. This edible crop is cultivated both for its seeds and oil, and is heavily used by Ukrainian people and is a major export for their economy. The symbolism of the Sunflower has become more powerful during the Russo-Ukrainian war– representing resiliency, unity, and hope for Ukrainians.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
Ukraine is experiencing increased seasonal flooding followed by extended droughts, both of which are stressing the country’s agricultural growth and wild flora health. The country’s many rivers and hills are transformed into mudslides as erratic rainstorms become more frequent, destroying plants such as Lilac which commonly grow in those areas. Syringa vulgaris has actually played a key role in alerting scientists and local gardeners that Ukraine’s warming temperatures are taking a toll on its environment. Considered an “indicator plant,” Lilac’s health seems to directly correlate to the greater climactic conditions, rather than sunlight exposure. Because of this, Lilacs have begun to bloom one day earlier every three years since the late 1900s, indicating to climate researchers that aromatic plants are feeling the earth’s warming temperatures. If Lilac’s seasons continue to shift, the many aspects of Ukraine’s ecosystems which work in harmony with one another will cease to do so. Syringa vulgaris helps stabilize soil, control erosion, cleanse the air, improve plant diversity, provides shade for microorganisms, and famously attracts fauna. These actions make the plant even more valuable and worthy of early conservation.
On February 24th, 2022, Ukraine was invaded by Russia in a devastating act of war that was condemned by world consensus. Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine is taking a widespread toll on the country’s environment with devastating, long-term consequences. Fires and destruction of infrastructure are releasing particulate matter laden with heavy metals and other toxic materials such as lead and mercury into the air. Newly damaged pipelines and industrial facilities are leaking fuel, asbestos, and other carcinogens, along with chemical waste. There is also the threat of radiation, now and possibly for decades to come. This new influx of toxic chemical and material waste is contaminating Ukraine’s water, soil, and livestock, and extends beyond civilian life to affect wildlife, flora, and the country’s natural landscapes. The accelerating natural habitat degradation, fragmentation, and loss is pervading every aspect of Ukraine’s environment: parks, farmlands, protected areas, forests, steppes, and peat ecosystems. This poses the threat of extinction to many vulnerable species of flora and fauna. The International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague is investigating this massive environmental destruction as a crime against humanity. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced world politicians to confront the fact that climate change is not a singular topic, but an issue woven into a network of risk and dependency, especially evident by the formidable demand for energy.
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