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Written by Dave Gs • February 15 Victor Lemoine – the Lilac Man

Especially for gardeners in colder zones, lilacs are classic flowering shrubs no-one would want to be without. Their large heads of fragrant flowers are a delight, and available in a wide range of colors including blues, purples, pinks and white. They are so beautiful, and such a welcome sight after months of winter, that their ‘plain Jane’ green leaves and slightly boring summer dress can be forgiven. When we look at garden plants, we are usually looking at the work of generations that have created their beauty – with roses, for example – but with most of the lilacs still grown today we are looking mostly at the work of one couple, trapped by circumstances with only their garden for entertainment. The legacy of Victor and Marie-Louise Lemoine, their accomplishment of so much in so few years, shows what single-minded dedication can create. 2021 is the 100th anniversary of Lemoine’s death, yet many of the plants he created can be found in nurseries and gardens around the world.

Born to Be a Breeder

Victor Lemoine was born in 1823 in the Lorraine region of France, an area bordering Germany with a long history of territorial disputes. His family were horticulturists, and it was perfectly natural for Victor to follow in that tradition, learning the trade from his family, and later travelling around Europe to apprentice at some of the most important nurseries. Perhaps his most valuable time was spent in Belgium with the botanist, plant collector and hybridizer, Louis Benoît van Houtte at his nursery in Ghent.

By 1850 Lemoine was ready to start his own nursery, which he did that year, establishing himself in the town of Nancy, just 20 miles from his parents. He was soon breeding new varieties of plants popular at the time, including Fuchsia, Begonia and Pelargonium, creating the first varieties with double flowers. Some of those varieties are still available today.

Plant Breeding, 19th Century Style

Today plant breeding is a science, using genetics and complex hybrid charts, often bringing different species of the same plant into the mix. Rare species from other countries are often the key to success, introducing genes for certain colors, or increased hardiness. 170 years ago, when Lemoine began, it was different. Charles Darwin didn’t publish ‘The Origin of Species’ until 1859, and the first French translation wasn’t available until 1973 – and anyway, in a country heavily influenced by Catholicism it would be a long time before Darwin was acceptable in ‘polite society’. The discovery of the principles of genetics by Gregor Mendel was first published in an obscure journal in Austria in 1862, but it had to be ‘discovered’ in 1900, after lying unread for almost 40 years, before those ideas were known. So Lemoine worked from earlier principles, the same rules that had given us domestic animals and breeds of dogs. ‘Select something closer to what you want, and keep breeding from that’ was the only principle anyone had to work with.

Lemoine in Lockdown

Writing this during Covid-19 restrictions gives us a better taste of how Lemoine, his wife and 8- year old son Émile, must have felt when they found themselves trapped at their nursery by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in the summer of 1870. That war plunged France into turmoil, and Lorraine was a major battle-ground. The Lemoine  family couldn’t leave the nursery safely, with battles raging across the fields around them. Following the defeat of France the next year Lemoine found his nursery was now in Germany – Lorraine wouldn’t become French again until 1918.  

Lilac Breeding

Through the conflict Lemoine found solace in his greenhouses and gardens, and the year war broke out was the year he began breeding lilacs. With his love of double flowers, and his success in creating them, it was natural for him to begin there. Vital for breeding was the possession of ‘bizarre’ plant forms that had some promise. For double lilacs this was a rare and not very exciting variety called ‘Azurea Plena’ – a pale-blue double. This plant had been found in Belgium in 1843, and it could easily have been something that Lemoine brought back from his time there. The flowers were small, the color was watery, but instead of the usual four petals on each flower, this mutation had eight or more. Lemoine took the standard approach of the time. He selected the best existing lilacs for color, large flower clusters and fragrance. Then he used fertilized ‘Azurea Plena’ with their pollen, protecting the flowers from any further accidental pollination by bees with muslin bags. The seeds were collected, sown, and when the plants flowered he anxiously studied them to find the few doubles with better blooms. ‘Shake and repeat’ was the next step.

Marie-Louise Lemoine

Many accounts of Lemoine’s life and success put his wife firmly out of the picture. It is true that he was the ‘horticulturist’ who understood plants, and his years of breeding gave him the necessary instinct to guide the choices for further breeding. But he was approaching 50, and he didn’t have the technical skills to pollinate the frustratingly-small lilac blooms, or the ability to stand on ladders for hours while doing it. Marie-Louise, though, did. Her delicate touch and smaller hands meant that it was she, not Victor, up the ladder on a sunny day doing the delicate work, handling tweezers, an artist’s brush and tiny scissors. Without Marie-Louise – and later their son Émile and grandson Henri – the creation of the ‘French Lilacs’ would not have been possible.

The French Lilacs

The result of the family’s efforts was the group of lilacs we call ‘French Lilacs’. Between them they created around 200 varieties, all with enormous flower heads and powerful fragrance, and in a palette of colors from the deepest purple through blues, pinks and reds, and pure whites too. Many are still grown today, and they remain the outstanding varieties for flower quality. Yes, they may be a little trickier to grow, and a little large for a small garden, but if you love lilacs you must have at least one in your garden.

When is Enough, Enough?

Lemoine founded a horticultural society in Nancy, the Societé Central d’Horticulture de Nancy. Its secretary was another nurseryman, Ernest Gallé. Victor and Ernest clashed over an issue that is still with us today. We can awe at the Lemoine output of 200 varieties or we can ask, as Gallé did, why so many? The nursery industry couldn’t easily deal with the growing of more and more new varieties, and no-one could grow them all in their garden. It takes an expert to distinguish many of them. Gallé thought that It was better to release just a few of the very best, and then stop until something significantly new came along. With a steady flow of new plants released for the 21st century garden every spring, we can ask ourselves that same question today. For Lemoine’s lilacs, only a handful remain readily available, but they are the very best – time solved the problem.

All Things Come to an End

Victor Lemoine died in 1911, but the nursery remained in the family. It survived World War I, and World War II, during which Émile died, but the post-war years in France were hard. Plants were a luxury few could afford, and fewer French people have the passion for gardening we find in English-speaking countries. The nursery catalog became shorter and more cheaply produced, until in 1960 Henri closed the nursery down and retired, living another 20 years in obscurity – and peace, we hope.