Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hulda Klager, the Lilac Lady

Imagine losing your life’s work. Imagine having to start all over again. Now, imagine doing all that at age 85. That daunting task faced Hulda Klager when the Columbia River swept over its banks in the flood of 1948, inundating her home and destroying all her beloved lilacs. Hulda, known around town as “The Lilac Lady,” immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1865 at the age of two. Her family eventually settled on a small farm in Woodland, Washington, about 25 miles north of Portland. Their Victorian home, built in 1887, remains on that site today.
While Hulga led a busy life of marriage and motherhood, she always maintained a strong interest in flowers and plants. In 1903, while recuperating from an illness, some neighbors gave her a book by the famous plant hybridizer, Luther Burbank. She was immediately fascinated by the process and set about to create a new apple, one that would be larger and less time-consuming to peel. After that success she turned her attention to lilacs. Within a few years, she had developed many new varieties and became regionally recognized and honored for her achievements. In the spring when the lilacs were in full bloom, she would always open her gardens to the public in what became know locally as Lilac Week.  When the flood destroyed all her plants, Hulga’s neighbors donated starts and clippings from lilacs she had given them, and with determination and hard work, she restored the garden and brought back Lilac Week. After her death in 1960, Hulga’s property with its lovely gardens faced the prospect of being bulldozed and turned into an industrial park. Members of the local garden club rallied to the cause and had the property declared a state and national historic site. One member exchanged 7 acres of land for the 4.5 acres of Hulga’s garden and the property is now in the safe and caring hands of the Hulda Klager Lilac Society. While the gardens are open year round, the ideal time to visit is during the annual Lilac Festival when the bushes are at their full and fragrant best.
The grounds include over 150 varieties of lilacs in all shades of purples from violet to lavender, as well as pinks, whites, and yellows. Many of these varieties, including some developed by Hulga, are available for sale with the profits going to fund the Lilac Society’s efforts in maintaining and restoring the gardens. In addition to the more than 250 lilac bushes, other plants, including rhododendron, camellias, wild flowers, and rare shrubs decorate the property. Trees in the garden were the sole survivors of the flood and are now some of the largest in Washington State.  In front of the house is a colorful Victorian-era garden.
The farmhouse is now open year round from 11 am to 2 pm. Inside, are many of Hulda’s original furnishings along with quilts, antiques and collectibles from the area. The water mark along the wall and a series of old photos dramatize the height and damage of the flood. Costumed hostesses are stationed in the rooms to answer any questions about the furnishings or the remarkable life of Hulda Klager.
This year’s Lilac Festival runs through May 14, 10am until 4pm daily.  The cost to enter the gardens and farmhouse is $2. From Portland, travel north on I-5 and exit at Woodland, Exit 21 and head west, under the freeway; signs show the way to the gardens from there. To learn more about the festival and gardens, visit the web site at, or call 360-225-8996 to check on the status of the blossoms.

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