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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

“In lilac-time, in lilac-time”

— This is commencement season at universities across the United States, and that makes it the perfect time to do a little field research that will help improve your residential college’s grounds.

The grounds and gardens of a residential college should be developed in ways that support the educational and affective life of the college’s members. We’ve often noted this principle before, both on our main how-to pages on residential college buildings and grounds, as well as in topical posts about adopting endangered food plants, beginning a natural history calendar, and making every college a farm and manufactory.

During commencement week each year, you want to be sure your grounds have a number of important plantings that are in full flower or fruit, and that these seasonal shows are worked into your end-of-year rituals. Hiring someone to do this yard work for you is both a waste of money and—more importantly—a waste of educational opportunity. The members of the college should be doing it themselves.

And commencement week is the perfect week for some horticultural research. Get in your car or put on your hiking shoes, and explore your local area for trees, shrubs, and ornamental flowers that are at the peak of bloom right now. Go to a local nursery or garden center to see what they have in flower this week as well. Make notes on every bloomin’ species and variety, and over the summer place orders for a few good specimens, taking delivery in the fall when the students are back. Put these plants in the ground with the students’ assistance, the work to be accompanied by all appropriate planting rituals and suitable sacrifices under the full moon.

In making your selections, look not only for dramatic visual shows, but for dramatic scents as well—plants that belong under bedroom windows where their fragrances will be remembered for a lifetime. Specific recommendations can only be made in a local context, which is why it’s important for you to do your own neighborhood research. ( has dozens of books on the design of fragrant gardens that may be of assistance.) Perhaps you can plant a Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) that will shed its rich perfume every year for a century or more. Or in a warmer climate a Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) that will fill your college’s rooms with fragrance through the night.

Lilacs (Syringa spp.) are always among the best plants for both scent and show, and if their flowering coincides with your commencement they are guaranteed to be a successful choice. Lilacs in the dooryard have brought sensual delight to households great and small for centuries, and there’s no reason they can’t do the same for your household as well.

I am imagining a future scene. Your lilacs go into the ground this year, and they flower and thrive, and over time each graduating class passes them and picks a sprig on commencement day. And then half a century from now—those lilacs and their descendants still flourishing—a new tradition begins, as the alumni back for their fiftieth reunion begin their gathering with a reading adapted from Walt Whitman, and a roll call of their departed classmates from the days when they all were young.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to us you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of those we loved.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021