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Lilacs
by Dan Clost
by Dan Clost

email: dan.clost@sympatico.ca

First serious garden earned 25 cents from the Kemptville Horticultural Society when I was 12. Have been poor in horticulture ever since but rich in spirit.

Went to work writing the Good Earth column (over 500 articles published in newspaper, magazine, website and journal.) and learned that what was printed wasn't what I wanted to say and certainly not what Gentle Reader understood me to say. Subsequently have developed a certain clarity and economy of words.

Day job- nursery and production manager for a large nursery/garden centre
Side job- Garden restoration and renovations, design consultations, remedial pruning.
Night job- garden writer and communicator (overnight success in another 20 years)

Dan gardens in Canadian Zone 5b


May 10, 2011

Youthful innocence, first love, the essential fragrance of spring even in countries that don't have spring, a flowering shrub that seems to have appeared everywhere in the botanical world at the same time, a fifty year old planting that shades the west side of our home in summer and enthrals us with its intoxicating scent in May, a lilac by any other name is second only to the rose in its universal acceptance. According to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, home to the world's largest collection of lilacs, there are 26 known native species, mostly from eastern Asia and southern Europe, from which more than 1600 cultivated varieties have arisen.

The standard for North America has been the hybrids of Syringa vulgaris, commonly known as the French Hybrids but they are being challenged with the continuing development of cultivars number 1601, 1602 etc. If we count the early 1900's as being botanically recent, then we can doff our hat to Isobella Preston of Canada as one of the world's foremost lilac breeders.

For me, the true test of a proper lilac is its fragrance. Some of the new introductions seem to combine both scent and depth of colour, for example Syringa vulgaris 'Yankee Doodle's has the deepest, solidest ( a perfectly acceptable superlative for this writer) purple of any lilac around. "Ludwig Spaethe' has been surpassed. How spectacular is this flower? At our nursery there are only two plants that we rarely unload into the sale beds. One is the Explorer Rose, J.P. Connell, and the other is Yankee Doodle. When they come into bloom, we just load them up onto a skid and plunk it down at the store entrance. Twenty minutes later we remove the empty skid. Doodle's white counterpart (early common lilacs came in purple and white), actually Syringa x oblata, is 'Betsy Ross'. Bailey Nurseries has its Fairy Tale series, a dwarfing creations from the Syringa pubescens family (think Dwarf Korean and Miss Kim) with wonderful names such as Sugar Plum, Tinkerbelle, Fairy Dust. Not to be outdone, Tim Woods of Proven Winners has patented Bloomerang- an open pollinated cross of Josee and an unknown bit of passing pollen- that is dwarf and is advertised as blooming almost continuously. I'm currently trialling this one ( fancy technical word which really means enjoying) at home; we're coming to the end of the second winter. It has lived up to its advertisements. Switching to the other end of the scale, there are lilac trees such as Canada's own Sheridan Nursery's gift to the word, Syringa reticulata 'Ivory Silk'.

You might have deduced, Gentle Reader, that I like lilacs. On our urban estate we enjoy a Tinkerbelle, Miss Kim Standard, the aforementioned glade of common purple, a Bloomerang, a Beauty of Moskow, an unknown variety of a Persian lilac and a two-stemmed Ivory Silk. None are in prominent positions, e.g. they flower and then become backdrop greenery.

Care for these chappies is quite easy. Prune very soon after flowering, never in the spring or you will lose the bloom. Many lilacs send up suckers. If there're only a few you can trim them to the ground with some hand pruners, if it's an established clump or copse, do what I do. Rake back the mulch, run the lawn mower over them and put the mulch back. When you're doing a new planting, lay down some weed cloth. It works very well.

Lilacs prefer neutral soil but accept some leeway. They really don't like wet feet. You might have read some knocks against the Bloomerang for this reason but don't pay overly much attention- almost all of the lilacs are in the same boat.

Colour selection is entirely up to you. Due to the timing of blossom and the relative height, lilacs don't have a significance impact on the overall garden palette.

You should always buy lilacs in bloom. That's the only way to make sure you know exactly the shade of the desired colour. Axiomatic to this, never put your faith in the lurid renderings of the catalogues. Unless, of course, it is a picture of Yankee Doodle.

Generally, I find fragrances overpowering, especially roses and lily of the valley, but the scent of the lilac wafting by on a gentle spring breeze is one of my gardening delights.

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