In Spring, purple lilacs bloom all over the Taos valley, usually nestled up against an adobe gate or border. Their sweet fragrance wafting out on the breeze is a sure sign we’ll all be living outside again after a long winter.
Lilacs are said to have arrived in Santa Fe from France, lovingly transplanted by the famous Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy who arrived in 1851. Lamy’s struggles with Taos’ own Padre Antonio Jose Martinez meant that he did not visit this far flung and unruly parish so it seems unlikely that the Bishop’s lilacs made their way to Taos in those early days.
With the founding of the Taos Society of Artists in 1912 flower gardens sprung up around the valley.
Almost certainly, lilacs were brought here by some of the other American and European citizens who moved here around 1900 and after. In the letters of one Presbyterian missionary, Alice Hyson, who lived and taught in Ranchos de Taos for 35 years, she spoke of the barren treeless landscape she encountered when she arrived in the 1870s. Every year when she returned home for a visit to Pennsylvania she returned with trees and seeds but as her primary interest was in helping people feed themselves, lilacs may not have been among them.
The most famous of these was the garden at the E.I. Couse house in the heart of Taos. Virginia Leavitt, Couse’s granddaughter, said her ancestors moved to Taos in 1902 and that her grandmother, Virginia, began a garden right away, writing to her sister in Washington State in 1906 asking for Virginia Creeper cuttings. Leavitt has records of peonies and barberry bushes but none for lilacs.
“The Couse garden was called the Mother Garden because so many other flower gardens got their start from this one. I’m sure Virginia planted lilacs,” Leavitt said, we still have some old ones here, I just don’t know what year she planted them.”
Leavitt said there was no mention of lilacs in her grandmother’s letters and among the early Taos artists’ paintings the only purple flowers Leavitt remembered seeing were the purple asters that blanket the fields in late summer.
Her best guess about the origin of lilac bushes in town was the famous Lilac Garden in front of the imposing hacienda built in the 1890s by the infamous Arthur Manby. The garden occupied the area where now a municipal parking lot stands, in front of the Taos Community Auditorium which used to be Manby’s home. Manby, an Englishman, resorted to a number of crooked and dishonest means to gain as much land as possible in the area and made many enemies in the process. When his body was discovered one day without a head, nobody was too surprised.
Leavitt has a 1917 photograph of her grandparents enjoying a garden party with some of Manby’s tenants at the time, artist Julius Rolshoven and his wife Harriet. They all are found in Manby’s Lilac Garden. The bushes, Leavitt said, are mature so had to have been planted at least a few years earlier.
“Manby probably planted that garden,” Leavitt said. “It would have been very likely for him, he was English.”