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A sign of post-pandemic spring: Sniffing lilacs at Arnold Arboretum

Gardening News
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A woman smells a lilac at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on May 6. Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

Olivia Schneider pulled down her mask and inhaled the perfume from purple blossoms, their sweetness casting the engineer back to her Wisconsin kick-the-can childhood and her mother clipping lilacs for the dinner table.

Last spring, the simple act would’ve flouted signs imposing pandemic rules for the Harvard-owned Arnold Arboretum’s more than 400 lilac bushes. “Please enjoy the lilacs from a distance,” they read, warning that they should be treated “like any other surface that can spread COVID-19.”

This Mother’s Day, lilac-sniffing is fair game — another small reminder of how data and experience have refined our tools for combating the virus.

“It wasn’t that we had any kind of hardcore scientific information saying the lilacs are going to be a vector” for transmission, said Stephen Schneider, the arboretum’s director of operations and public engagement. “But there was so much that we didn’t know.”

Last spring, the pandemic hit Boston early and hard. Dozens of Massachusetts residents were dying every day, and hospitals were so strapped that the city used its convention center as a field hospital.

The arboretum remained open; public health experts advised that being outdoors seemed to be far safer than being  indoors. The greatest risk appeared to come from breathing someone else’s air, so masks and distance would help keep people safe.

But the typical crowds of “Lilac Sunday” caused extra concern. The Mother’s Day festival has been a tradition at the 281-acre arboretum for more than a century, a celebration of floral beauty much like cherry-blossom festivals in Japan and Washington, D.C. In recent years, it draws 40,000 or more visitors.

“Lilac Sunday is the antithesis of people keeping their distance,” Schneider said.

The arboretum canceled the official event, but the staff knew that even the pandemic wouldn’t dissuade crowds. So they did what would later become familiar to any American walking the aisles of a grocery or hardware store: painted arrows to move visitors past the lilacs in only one direction. To be extra safe, signs asked people not to sit on benches — and not to smell the flowers.

It was a question of “What’s the best thing to do when you don’t know?” arboretum director William “Ned” Friedman said. Sniffing was banned “out of an abundance of caution,” he said.

“There’s very little epidemiological research on lilac-based COVID transmission,” he deadpanned.

This year, Lilac Sunday festival activities are officially canceled once again, but pandemic progress can be felt. Benches may be sat upon. In hindsight, the ban was unnecessary — the accumulated evidence now is that the risk from contaminated surfaces or objects is very low, and droplets exhaled by someone with the virus are by far the main danger. Evidence also has accumulated that outdoor air is dramatically safer than indoor spaces, to the point that outdoor mask mandates are dwindling.

So unlike when lilacs last in the arboretum bloomed, they may once again be smelled up close — though keeping your distance from other humans remains important because people remove masks to sniff.

“This year, I think the message is, ‘Sure, you can sniff the lilacs,’ ” said Schneider, the arboretum’s director of operations. “But you probably want to wait your turn.”

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