Cold enough to clone lilac

Street Life Samotechny Lane
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IN RUSSIA, as in England, the answer to a problem is a nice cup of tea, and the inexhaustible topic of conversation is the weather.

Russians have had plenty to talk about this spring as an unusually hot April has been followed by a May so cold that one could be excused for thinking it was March.

At the national lilac collection, the cold snap is cause for more than idle chitchat and the distressed botanists can find no comfort in a cuppa. The lilacs are shrivelling on the bough instead of filling the air with the heady perfume that should be the scent of Moscow in May.

Officially, the botanists at the Academy of Sciences Main Botanical Gardens earn less than the cost of public transport to take them to and from work. They joke about this, cheerfully admitting that they are "hares" (people who ride on buses without tickets). But the state of the lilacs has really upset them.

"It is very disappointing," said Irina Okuneva, showing me the petals of a mulatka (mulatto) lilac that should have had a subtle chocolate tinge. They were indeed brown but it was as if they had been burnt, for frost is like fire - it singes.

Instead of walking round the grounds, we went indoors where Irina, bundled up in jumpers, showed me photographs of some of the 200 lilac varieties that grow in the gardens. It was like looking at pictures of food when you are hungry.

"Here's the mulatka flowering," she said. "I have one like it at my dacha." The variety was created by Nikolai Mikhailov, who set up the collection in 1946.

Most lilacs are, well, lilac-coloured, but Irina showed me single and double varieties that went from deepest purple through pink to white. There was even a yellow lilac called "Primrose".

"This is a lovely one," she said, pointing to "Sensation", whose purple petals were edged with white and looked like stars. "Beauty of Moscow" was pink when it opened but gradually turned white. As for white, there was always, to quote Procul Harum, a whiter shade of pale.

"Good bridal flowers," I said. "Not really," replied Irina, "because they don't stand up in vases. But the scent is marvellous. They all have different scents. I can distinguish most of them in the dark."

Oh, how frustrating to sit listening to this, like a blind man having colours described to him. Irina went on with her lecture. Lilac trees, she said, could live up to a hundred years. They thrived in any soil provided it is not too acid or marshy. Russians thought of them as their national flower, but they originated in Asia Minor. Probably, the Turks first cultivated wild lilacs and introduced them into the Balkans.

At which point, in walked Dr Mitko Kr'stev, the head of the collection and himself a native of Bulgaria. "Tea?" offered Irina.

"Later," he said, "after we have listened to the weather forecast."

The radio predicted that it was going to be minus five degrees Celsius again overnight. "Somebody must have sinned," said Dr Kr'stev, gloomily. Conditions have not been this bad since cold wiped out the entire collection in 1979. This year began inauspiciously when mice nibbled the lilacs, but worse was the false summer in April that encouraged the buds to burst, only for the frost to nip them. Was there nothing that could be done to save the lilacs?

"Well," said Dr Kr'stev, "we can cover the bushes with sheets. That helps a bit. And we can use smoke. It is heavier than air and therefore acts like a coat, keeping the cold air from the trees. Peasants have long known this. That's why they burn straw under apple trees."

If worse came to worst and the lilacs died, the botanists could use stored genetic material to restore the stocks. At this, Dr Kr'stev seemed to cheer up and a twinkle appeared in his eye. "If you can clone a sheep called Dolly, why should not we clone a lilac called Natasha?"

Helen Womack