Lilacs hold a special place in gardens, and in the hearts of garden lovers. Praised by poets, they spell ‘home’ to many of us, with their old-fashioned charm and their association with older gardens, perhaps of a grandparent or older relative. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in the modern garden – not at all. Their reliability in colder climates and their profuse blooming in spring make them garden staples – and then of course there is that magnificent fragrance too. Especially in colder zones, no garden is complete without a lilac. If your experience of lilacs is with some old, overgrown bush with small lilac blooms scattered about some years, then you have been missing out. There is so much more, and the story of lilacs is a fascinating one – let’s take a look.
The group of plants we call lilacs, and botanists call Syringa, is a small one, with just 12 species, scattered from Europe all the way into China and Korea. Their leaves might tell us they are closely related to the privets, but their more distant relationship to olive trees we will leave for the botanists. There are also several important hybrids between different lilac species that have been created by gardeners, and perhaps on another blog we will look at the variety of lilacs that is available for our gardens. But for now, let’s stay with the plant that most of us recognize, the common lilac, or Syringa vulgaris.
Where Did the Lilac Come From?
It was from its limited range in the mountains of what is today Serbia and Bosnia that the original unassuming plant found its way into gardens, By the 17th century we find it called Blew (blue) Pipeflower, for its hollow stems, and grown in English gardens. The small, fragrant blossoms became garden favorites long before we had the luxury of plants from around the world, and the lilac was among the first shipments of plants sent to America to satisfy the new settlers’ need for some memory of home. The first plants arrived around 1750, and by the 19th century it was well planted in both the minds and gardens of Americans, and Walt Whitman raised the humble plant to cult status with his poem, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”
The French Hybrid Lilacs
Also in the 19th century, but back across the Atlantic Ocean, a Frenchman called Victor Lemoine had fallen in love with lilacs. He came from a family of professional gardeners, and he head studied the theory and methods of the time that allowed him to create many new varieties of most of the flowers that were popular at the time. He opened his own nursery in 1852, but it was 1870 when, as a distraction from the stresses and turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War, he began to experiment with lilacs. He had a rare and not very exciting tree with double flowers – instead of the usual 4 petals in each tiny flower, this one had 8 or more, in a dense cluster. It was a bluish-mauve that went by the name of ‘Azurea Plena’. He made many meticulous crosses between this one and other variations he had, always selecting the most beautiful seedlings with the largest flower clusters. Eventually he had almost 200 plants, mostly with double flowers, which created a much denser blossom head. They were much larger – almost twice the size – than the original plants, and their fragrance was intact and just as glorious. The colors ranged from deep purples, through shades of blue, to pinks and whites. Many are still grown today, not as heirloom curiosities, but as top-rated garden plants – quite a tribute to one of France’s greatest gardeners.
From among the many French Hybrid Lilacs, as his plants are commonly known, a few stand out for special mention. If you love white lilacs, you will adore the one called ‘Miss Ellen Willmott’. Green in the bud, its double flowers are pure, chaste white, and they exude that delicious ‘lilac’ scent. Miss Willmott was a famous and eccentric English gardener of the time, who spent her large fortune making grand gardens across Europe, dying penniless. This bush would be worth growing just for the association of its name, but for a white lilac, perhaps to commemorate a wedding or christening, there is simply nothing that beats it.
Lemoine’s hybrids were a big hit, and ‘lilac fever’ swept Europe, soon arriving too in America, where his plants were widely grown and soon became part of any self-respecting garden. American nurserymen and gardeners were just as fascinated by this plant, and the most important was Father John Fiala, a Catholic priest and teacher who lived in Ohio. In the years after WWII he began to collect, study and breed lilacs, and his definitive book, Lilacs, A Gardener’s Encyclopedia, first published in 1988, is still the best available source of information on lilac selection and growing. He founded the International Lilac Society, which tracks and records all the breeding history of old and new varieties. Besides studying lilacs, he bred them, and of the 78 he created the most iconic is from his later years – ‘Yankee Doodle’. He often used French Hybrids as a starting point, and for this plant he took Lemoine’s ‘Prodigé’ and crossed it with an American bush called ‘Rochester’ to create what is certainly one of the very best deep purple lilacs in existence. He released it just a few years before his death in 1990. And it remains a tribute to his skill and dedication.
Father Fiala was not the only American to be intrigued by lilac breeding. Because of its cold-resistance, this plant had great appeal on the Prairies. Edward Gardner founded the Gardener Nursery Company, in Osage, Iowa, early in the 20th century, and besides supplying farmers with fruit trees, he did some lilac breeding. The plant bearing his name, ‘Edward J. Gardner’, created some time before 1950, is still the best pink double lilac around, and not surprisingly, considering its source, it is also one of the hardiest.
Russian Lilac Breeders
That hardiness also made lilacs popular in Russia, where at the height of the Stalinist era lilacs were being bred, most notably by Leonid Alekseevich Kolesnikov, a scientist and breeder who, despite following the false and misleading doctrines of the geneticist Trofim Lysenko, did succeed in creating some outstanding varieties of lilacs. It is only because the Royal Botanical Gardens in Canada broke the ice of the Cold War and, in the 1970s, established contact and imported plants, that we have some of Kolesnikov’s plants in our gardens today. Everyone loves blue flowers, and for a blue lilac you simply cannot do better than ‘Nadezhda’, perhaps the greatest of Kolesnikov’s creations. Russian for ‘hope’, it is with that bush we will leave this story, even though we have only begun to explore the range of these lovely plants.