Top Twenty of Twenty Twelve

Bet you can’t say that ten times really fast. Top twenty of twenty twelve, twop twenty of twenty telve, top tenty……….oh never mind.

Okay so what’s this all about?

If you’ve visited this blog before, you may have had occasion to visit my Weekly Plant Picks page. Each weekend during gardening season, I profiled a tree, shrub or perennial that had impressed me that week – usually several traits about a particular plant earned its place on the page. After 20 entries though, it has become a tad cumbersome, and since the season is officially over in our part of the world, I’m disassembling the page until spring.

If you’re new to this blog, or just never got around to viewing the Plant Pick page, or would like to be able to reference this information in the future – this post’s for you.  And be sure to check out the updates at the end of the post.

So without further ado here is, in chronological order ………

Sue’s Top 20 of 2012

June 3rd – Syringa hyacinthiflora ‘Pocahontas’

Syringa hyacinthiflora ‘Pocahontas’ – still alive and now blooming after a winter spent in a 2 gallon pot.

So how does this pathetic looking specimen merit my first Weekly Plant Pick? Well there’s more to this gal than meets the eye. I bought it on sale late August 2011, put it on my patio and thought little about it til that October when I noticed the leaves were dry and crunchy – oh yeah maybe I should plant that thing (if it’s even alive) or at least give it some water. I gave it a drink and again ignored it (it’s the end of the season, I’m tired and I just don’t feel like digging in the dirt anymore). Fast forward – April of this year and time to get rid of this dead thing in a pot on my patio. Except it’s not dead – the branches are still supple and the buds are fat and fleshy. In fact not a single branch tip had suffered winterkill – wow this thing is hardy! Now she’s planted (more like popped in the ground and ignored again) and despite her very small stature, she’s now blooming. Not the big robust blooms of her future self, but blooms nonetheless. From these baby blooms emanates a heavenly scent.

Pocahontas will grow 2 -3 metres tall and wide, and like all of the hyacinthiflora hybrids, will flower a little earlier than most lilacs. These hybrids are one of the most fragrant of all the lilacs and have the same lush dark green heart-shaped leaf as the common lilac.

So what do I see in this small specimen? Not what is, but what will be – I expect she won’t disappoint.


June 10th – Malus baccata ‘Rosthern’ (Rosthern Columnar Crab)

Top Left – Malus baccata ‘Rosthern’ flowers. Photo: Pat Gaviller
Bottom Left – Vase shaped when young and maturing to oval form Photo: Cathy Gaviller
Top Right – a robin perches in the bronze coloured branches. Photo: Cathy Gaviller
Bottom Right – small ornamental fruit. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A profusion of white flowers in early spring, good fall colour, beautiful bronze bark and pretty reddish gold ornamental fruit (loved by birds), make this a lovely four season tree – a true specimen. In addition, its upright growth habit makes it a more appropriate choice for small yards than the wide-spreading selections typical of the genus.

As the name suggests this cultivar of the Siberian crab was developed in Rosthern Saskatchewan in the early 1970’s. It is often confused with the much earlier American introduction ‘Columnaris’ which is highly susceptible to fire blight – Rosthern on the other hand, has excellent resistance.

I use these trees often in designs – for their year-long interest, compact form and their cold and chinook hardiness. They never fail to impress!

June 17th – Syringa vulgaris  ‘Ludwig Spaeth’

Syringa vulgaris ‘Ludwig Spaeth’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

This older cultivar has lots going for it. The colour is stunning, with dark red-violet buds opening to slightly lighter florets. The growth habit is fairly tidy and the blossoms are large and luscious. As well, Ludwig Spaeth is a very early bloomer, beginning about the same time as the early flowering crabs and continuing to offer colourful blooms for longer than most other S. vulgaris cultivars.

Like all of the species, the leaves are rich dark green providing season long contrast to lighter coloured foliage in the garden.

My only criticism is that the scent is a little too subtle for me – while it has the classic lilac fragrance, one must be up very close to experience it.

All in all, a lovely shrub for the spacious border.

June 24th – Dianthus ‘Neon Star’

Dianthus ‘Neon Star’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Intense magenta blooms cover the rich blue foliage on this neatly mounding perennial. In our climate, Dianthus ‘Neon Star’ begins blooming early to mid June and continues for most of the summer.

It grows 6”- 8” high and will spread into a tidy clump 12”- 18” wide. When finished blooming, the lovely steel-blue foliage still offers colour in the late summer garden.

What else could one possibly ask of a perennial?

July 1st – Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’

Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

This lovely peony belongs to a group called Itoh Peonies or Intersectionals. They are a cross between the tree peony which is a woody plant and the more common herbaceous peony. This cross has given us the best of both – the huge papery blooms of the tree peony, in a smaller more compact plant. In fact they are more compact than their herbaceous parent.

Morning Lilac earned a place in the top 5 plants evaluated in the 2011 Perennial Trials at the Calgary Zoo. I put a couple of these in a client’s yard last year – not only did they make it through the winter, they doubled in size and are covered in big beautiful blooms. I’ve never seen either of the parent species perform so well in their first year. A colleague of mine who lives west of city, planted 5 of them on her very exposed piece of windswept land and she reports they too are covered in the characteristic pointy buds, which will soon be gorgeous blooms.

These plants are a little pricey but they are worth every penny and continue to come down in price. There are numerous cultivars in a wide range of colours – why not give one try? You’ll be glad you did.

July 8th – Rosa ‘Winnipeg Parks’

Rosa ‘Winnipeg Parks’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This is one you’ll either love or hate. When the blooms first open they are a super-saturated, almost fluorescent, cherry red. After a day or two they calm down a bit to a lovely hot pink. When I planted a trio of these last year my first thought was ‘What have I done? This is just garish’. However, it wasn’t long before I decided I actually liked them – they were bright to be sure, but they worked well with the soft purples of the various neighbouring Campanula species, and there was plenty of green around to quiet their rather loud presentation.

If you can get past the intensity of the flower colour, Winnipeg Parks has lots to offer – the blooms are full and velvety with just a hint of fragrance. The leaves are a beautiful bronze-tipped green and the growth habit is very compact – about 2 ½ feet tall and wide. It looks like a classic tea rose but is really a hardy shrub rose, one of the Parkland series developed in Morden Manitoba – very hardy and disease resistant. Try it – you might like it!

July 15thScabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’

Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The pincushion flower is a reliable, long blooming perennial – this particular cultivar has proven to be extremely hardy in my garden, with some of the leaves even remaining evergreen through the last 3 winters. The flowers are intense dark purple (the darkest I’ve seen in a pincushion flower), with lighter centres.

The foliage too, is deeper green than other Scabiosa cultivars. ‘Ultra Violet’ is tidy and well-behaved in full or part sun, grows 12 to 18 inches tall/wide, and will bloom from early summer through to fall. One of my favourite perennials – too bad the squirrels agree.

July 22nd – Campanula portenschlagiana

Campanula portenschlagiana. Photo: Marg Gaviller

These little beauties must be the florists’ best kept secret. I see them in decorative pots around Easter and Mother’s Day at grocery store florists or the indoor section of nurseries, but I’ve never seen them in a greenhouse perennial department, at least not here.

What many gardeners may not know is that the Dalmatian Bellflower is a hardy perennial in our climate. It forms spreading mounds (12-24 inches) of deep mauve bells and will bloom continually from early to late summer.

I was thrilled when I first found Campanula portenschlagiana in a little ceramic Easter egg at my local grocery. I’d actually discovered it years before in a plant encyclopedia but had given up ever finding it here – nobody I asked about it had ever heard of the Dalmatian Bellflower. Obviously now they have, and so have you!


July 29th – Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’

Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Heucherella is an intergeneric hybrid between Heuchera and Tiarella. ‘Berry Fizz’ has shiny dark purple-bronze foliage heavily splashed with pink. The sprays of tiny orchid-pink flowers are a lovely contrast to the large maple shaped leaves.

It’s equally happy in sun or shade, though will appreciate a little extra moisture in full sun. In full shade it holds its colour remarkably well, better than most in fact.

Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’ will grow 10 -12 inches tall (a little taller when in bloom), 14 -16 inches wide and is especially striking in containers.


August 5th – Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’

Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’. Photo: Pat Gaviller

I’ll be honest – this plant shouldn’t really be featured on this page……….yet. It’s debatably hardy here, but I’m hoping its ‘less than stellar’ overwintering of the last two years has more to do with the weird winters we’ve had than its hardiness. I am just so smitten with this coneflower – the colour is as the name promises; a bright tangerine orange.

I’m not so easily won over though, that a pretty colour is enough – this Echinacea has much more to offer than just its stunning colour. Each individual bloom lasts and lasts and lasts – at least 3 weeks, maybe more, and there are lots of them, on thick sturdy 30” stems. The foliage is dark green and the flowers have a distinct honey scent.

I bought a couple of Echinacea ‘Tangerine Dream’ two years ago – only one of them survived, but it is growing, albeit slowly. This coneflower will grow a fair bit in the first season it’s planted so I’m actually willing to use it as an annual if that’s the best I can do. However, I’ve heard it said that the key to getting these babies to survive our winters is to prevent them from flowering in their first year – quite a conundrum eh?

August 19thViburnum dentatum ‘J.N. Select’ (Red Feather Arrowwood)

Viburnum dentatum ‘J.N. Select’.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

I chose this plant after seeing how well it held up to golf ball size hail last weekend. We’d also had a vicious hail storm several weeks before – smaller hailstones, but hard driving hail for at least 30 minutes. Again this Viburnum didn’t suffer a single shredded leaf – remarkable. But that’s not all……..

The shiny serrate leaves are red in the spring, turning to mid green with distinctive red edges and aging to bright green – the new growth continues to be red throughout the growing season giving a two toned effect. The pretty white flowers, typical of the genus, appear in early summer and are followed by blue-black berries in the fall. Red fall foliage rounds out this 3-season shrub – the berries hold on into the early winter, extending the ornamental value to almost 4 seasons.

Hardy to zone three, this shrub should reach 8 to 10 feet tall and wide (according to Johnson’s Nurseries who bred this selection). It is currently under review with the Alberta Government Woody Evaluation Trials at test sites across the province, so mature height and spread in our climate has not yet been assessed. In my own garden…….well I guess we’ll see over the next few years. For now, I’m happy with its bushy upright growth habit and lovely shiny green/red foliage.

August 26th – Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’

Top – spring foliage. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.
Bottom – midsummer foliage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Large luscious leaves emerge bright berry pink in the spring, darkening somewhat in the heat of the summer, but otherwise maintaining good colour throughout the season. Soft pink flowers add an airy dimension to their summer appeal.

This Heuchera has both H. americana and H. villosa parentage, giving it the best of both – the cold hardiness of the former and heat tolerance of the latter. In addition Berry Smoothie’s H. villosa heritage is responsible for its large, slightly fuzzy leaves and stems, and its fast growth habit.

Mine have survived two winters, countless rabbit attacks and several nasty hail storms – still look pretty good considering. Berry Smoothie is a great garden addition, providing colour from early spring through late fall.

 September 2ndPhysocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

Ninebarks have received a bad name of late – ‘scraggly and buggy’ I hear from fellow gardeners. The problem is, if they’re not situated in full sun (and I mean full sun all day long), they will in fact become leggy and infested with aphids. But plant Summer Wine in full sun and it will shine – literally. Rich, wine-coloured glossy foliage lasts well into late fall long after many other shrubs have lost their leaves. Pretty pale pink flowers are followed by rust coloured seed capsules. The branches of older growth are gray and peeling, but new growth is dark purplish red providing winter interest as well.

In its first year this ninebark will complain in full sun if not kept watered, which leads gardeners (and suppliers) to believe that they in fact like a bit of shade. However in subsequent years Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’ will be very drought tolerant and thrive in hot dry conditions – just what a prairie landscape needs. So give a ninebark another chance – if you give it what it needs, Summer Wine won’t let you down.

September 9th – Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’

Top – early fall colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Bottom – Photo: Pat Gaviller

Cream Cracker dogwood is a ‘sport’ of the mottled dogwood, Cornus alba ‘Gouchaultii’. A sport refers to a spontaneous bud mutation resulting in a shoot that differs morphologically from the rest of the plant. When these shoots present a desirable characteristic, they are often then cultivated to create new cultivars. Indeed many new plant cultivars arise from this phenomenon.

Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ has a dwarf habit and green/gold variegation on new growth, fading to green and butter cream on older growth. In early fall the cream coloured margins turn peach/pink. Purple stems round out this cultivar’s 4-season appeal.

The only drawback is availability – when first introduced they were readily available here and I used them in many clients’ designs, but in the last couple of years I’ve had trouble sourcing them. My suppliers tell me it’s because they are unreliably hardy in our climate. This hasn’t been my experience, and they’ve been deemed a recommended plant for our area in the Alberta Government Woody Evaluation Trials. Granted they can take a few years to really establish themselves, suffering significant winter dieback in the first couple of years, but I’ve discovered that once they get established they are proving to be quite robust.

Let’s hope the nurseries here can be convinced that Cream Cracker dogwood is worth another try.

September 16th – Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’

Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It’s 3PM and I just realize I haven’t eaten anything since this morning’s granola. Feeling a little peckish and not wanting to ‘spoil my dinner’, I opt for toast and tomatoes. My husband grows awesome heritage tomatoes, several of which he harvested earlier in the day. As my knife slices through the meaty, juicy flesh of a perfectly ripe Black Krim, I decide I want a few fresh basil leaves. Hubby grows numerous types of basil – I choose Cinnamon for its large flat leaves, perfect for layering atop sliced tomatoes.

I bite into my late summer lunch and…………..WOW! Flavour explosion!

If you’ve never grown this flavourful basil, I highly recommend it. I find it somewhat like Thai basil (which we also grow and is my favourite), but with less licorice notes. Cinnamon basil has earned a place on this page because it is also very beautiful – a tall bushy basil with dark purple stems and pale mauve flowers with showy purple bracts. Grown in pots it has sufficient ornamental value to adorn my patio, emitting a spicy aroma that supposedly wards off mosquitoes.

For more information on Cinnamon basil check out this post by Ramona Werst on the Herb Companion’s IN THE HERB GARDEN.

September 23rd – Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’

Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’. I took this photo a few days ago after a much needed watering. Today this daylily is still blooming and has several more buds waiting to open. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The garden is tired, dry and leaf-littered. Little by little, garden foliage is losing vigour as perennials prepare for winter dormancy. Why then, is a summer perennial gracing this page? Well……..because it’s still blooming. That’s right it’s September 23rd and this daylily still has buds and blooms.

Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’ belongs to a select group of daylilies called Trophytaker® Daylilies. In order for a daylily to receive this designation it must meet numerous criteria: Beauty, Hardiness, Fast Clumping, Extended Bloom (minimum 42 days), Superior Foliage and Pest/Disease Resistance.

Extended bloom indeed! ‘Hot Embers’ daylily has been blooming in my back garden since July 25th!

September 30th – Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’

Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ fall foliage.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

A lilac? Really? At this time of year? I know, I know, I promised no more lilacs, but this lilac is different – I’ve chosen this particular lilac because it has striking fall colour. The foliage turns a beautiful dark purple/red – a stunning contrast to the red, orange and yellow foliage that many other plants exhibit in the fall.

Miss Kim lilac offers other awesome attributes as well – dwarf compact habit, good drought tolerance and winter hardiness. Of course, during lilac season she also has pretty, very fragrant blooms, but that’s not why she’s here today – it’s all about the fall foliage colour. Gorgeous!

October 7th – Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Top – early summer inflorescence.
Bottom – late summer/fall inflorescence.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

It’s at this time of year that the reed grasses come into their full glory – stately upright masses of feathery gold. When the grassy inflorescence first emerges in early to mid summer, it is soft green with a touch of pink. With age it becomes more tan coloured, and finally a rich gold which is particularly showy against the very blue autumn sky.

Karl Foerster is a fool-proof perennial – very hardy here in our zone 3 climate and drought tolerant too. In fact once established they actually prefer lean, dry soil. I made the mistake of giving supplemental water in their second year – they’d been really thirsty in the first year I planted them, so I assumed they were water-loving.

As well, they seemed to fall over all the time (so I gave them more water thinking this was why they were so floppy). When I mentioned to a colleague that I thought reed grasses had a sloppy growth habit, she suggested maybe they were getting too much water – they never got watered after that, even though they’re in a very dry spot. Now they stand up straight and tall.

In the late summer and fall these beauties can be seen from blocks away, especially large stands of them. They bring real elegance to the late summer border and continue to provide interest well into the winter. Matures to about 3 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet tall. A real showpiece!

October 14 – Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’

Top – Flowers and fruit. Photos courtesy of Wikipedia
Bottom – Fall colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Viburnum trilobum is at its best in the fall. The species itself presents tawny red fall colour, but Bailey Compact, a cultivar of the American highbush cranberry, turns bright fuchsia red – very showy. Its dense foliage and dwarf upright growth habit make it an appealing addition to the urban landscape. The large trilobate leaves also bring some coarser texture to our gardens, contrasting nicely with finer textured shrubs. Pretty white flowers in the spring and red berries in late summer/fall ensure this shrub has something beautiful to offer all season.

October 21

Today will be my last Plant Pick til next spring. It’s getting harder to find plant material worthy of this page as there’s just so much less of it around. So for my closing pick of 2012 I present…..

Malus ‘Rosy Glo’

This small weeping standard is an outstanding specimen tree – very hardy and offers beautiful four-season interest: Bright pink spring blossoms, bluish purple foliage, plum-red bark, striking weeping form, stunning fall foliage and pretty ornamental apples. Need I say more?

Left – spring blossoms. Right – October colour with dusting of early snow. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Left – brillant orange November colour. Right – pretty ornamental fruit. Photos: Sue Gaviller


Looking back on this year’s plant picks, I felt it necessary to add a few updates.

Dianthus ‘Neon Star’continued blooming well into September, as did Scabiosa caucasica ‘Ultra Violet’. They were stopped short when we had early snow that stuck around for longer than is usual for this time of year. When it did melt after a week or so, Campanula portenschlagiana still had a few blooms on it and remarkably Hemerocallis ‘Hot Embers’ was still trying to bloom – I didn’t let it of course, so as not to compromise its ability to get through what could be a very long cold winter (if you read between the lines there you might detect a perceptible whine).

Paeonia ‘Morning Lilac’ has been put through another test for toughness – remember that colleague of mine who put 5 of them in her large exposed acreage garden? Well, she watered them in for the winter – gave them a nice long deep drink, and then realized the hose had been attached to the hot water faucet. Don’t laugh. I remember when my youngest was a toddler, he asked for a drink of water – I turned on the tap, filled his cup and gave it to him. When he shrieked and dumped it all down the front of his onesie, I realized the water had still been hot from when I’d just previously run it. OMG! I was beside myself with guilt, but he was a tough little guy and luckily the water hadn’t been hot enough to scald him. Lesson learned.

Anyways, last I heard the peonies actually survived the hot water treatment – I’ll be sure to check back with her next spring to see how they fared.

Viburnum dentatum ‘J.N. Select’ continued to do well, except they really didn’t appreciate the dry windy weather we had late in the season. Supplemental watering was required during this time, but my hope is this was only because it was their first year. Perhaps they’ll prove to be more tolerant of dry windy conditions once they’re firmly established.

Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ and Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’ are continuing to hold their deep rich foliage colour – at least they were until the snow started falling again.

Well that’s about it – nothing else new to report. It was a good year all in all. Not without its disappointments mind you, like golf ball size hail, and of course winter has come way too early. For the most part though I’m pretty happy with the garden’s performance. How about you?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Mmmmm…. Love those Lilacs

On a gorgeous June evening, as I drive home from a client appointment, I notice a couple of young ladies walking down the street giggling, their faces pressed deep into big bunches of freshly picked lilacs. I smile, remembering a humorous moment of my youth – I was 20 years old and I’d come to Calgary to work for the summer.  A couple of friends and I had gone out on a Friday evening. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, we found ourselves taking shelter from the rain under a huge stand of lilacs. As we stood there breathing in the heady scent, I commented that the aroma of lilacs was purported to induce feelings of euphoria and/or relaxation. Within seconds the three of us were giggling uncontrollably, convinced that this power of lilacs was real. Of course it may have had something to do with the other ‘herbals’ we’d just inhaled (what can I say – before I became a responsible parent, I was a bit of a party girl).

My love affair with lilacs actually began many years earlier. As a young girl visiting my grandparents’ acreage every Sunday, I would eagerly await the blooming of the huge bank of lilacs that bordered a portion of their long driveway – I’d pick big bouquets to take home. Later we inherited this property and for several weeks each spring I brought fresh lilacs into my bedroom every night. Falling asleep to their sweet perfume was so very peaceful.  Hmmm, maybe there is something to this lilac lore. When I came to Calgary I was thrilled with their abundance – on boulevards, in city parks, residential yards and vacant lots. I felt a little less homesick with the familiar scent wafting through open windows.

My affection for lilacs isn’t all about nostalgia though – they have legitimate design value, especially in our harsh climate. I’m always surprised when a client says ‘I don’t like lilacs’. My first thought is always ‘What’s not to like?’ Granted there are those who have a justifiable beef with them – for allergy sufferers, the intense fragrance can be an assault on already challenged olfactory systems. However, it’s not usually the scent that my clients object to; it’s the growth habit. Invariably I discover that the lilacs they have such strong distaste for are the big ol’ sprawly things that are really old, never pruned (or badly pruned) and positioned inappropriately.  Some of these babies get big, so they need some elbow room, and even if left to develop naturally into their loosely globose form, they need periodic pruning to remove deadwood.

The Syringa genus consists of many species, cultivars within those species, and interspecific hybrids. The resulting selection in terms of colour, size and bloom-time is considerable. In addition, the foliage (shape and size) is quite variable, as are the flowers and even the scent. This all adds up to a designer’s choice plant – if I seem determined to convince you of the lilac’s design worth, indeed I am. Here’s why:


These fragrant  beauties have been putting on a real show for the last couple of weeks – bold masses of colour in pale mauves and pinks, icy blues, intense violets and crisp whites. It started with Syringa vulgaris (common lilac) and Syringa hyacinthiflora (Hyacinth Lilac), followed by Syringa meyeri (dwarf Korean lilac) and hybrids thereof (eg. Fairytale series). Syringa prestoniae (Preston lilac) is beginning to bloom as I write. Syringa patula (Manchurian lilac) will soon follow and Syringa reticulata (Japanese tree lilac) will close the show with white feathery blooms.

Cool spring colours – the Sryringa genus with its many species, cultivars and hybrids, can be used to create lovely soft colour combos. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ has large luscious blooms and is particularly fragrant – photographing her was sheer bliss. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hot pink buds open to soft pink blooms on Syringa ‘Tinkerbelle’, the first of the Fairytale series. Spicy fragrance, dwarf habit and winter hardiness, make this an ideal choice for any garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It’s hard not to be impressed with these floriferous specimens,  but what about when they’re finished blooming – then they’re just boring green things right? Well they are indeed green but they’re not boring. Most lilac foliage is dark saturated green, as opposed to much of the other deciduous foliage in the garden, which is medium green, sometimes with slight yellow or blue undertones. The dark green Syringa foliage provides stunning contrast to other foliage colours, especially lime green or variegated. It also creates a lush backdrop for the whole garden throughout the season – since lilacs are very drought tolerant, they continue to look fresh and green when the foliage on many plants is fading, wilting or browning in the dry heat of late summer. As well, there are a couple of lilacs with green and gold variegated leaves – Syringa reticulata ‘Golden Eclipse’ and Syringa vulgaris ‘Aucubaefolia’. And if that weren’t enough, Syringa patula and Syringa hyacinthiflora have great fall colour. So now you know – lilacs have colour value through most of the growing season.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Ludwig Spaeth’ is an older cultivar, well-behaved with dark violet blooms and subtle fragrance. When finished blooming, the handsome dark foliage still provides striking contrast to the bright gold foliage of its neighbour Cornus alba ‘Aurea’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Syringa reticulata ‘Golden Eclipse’ has very large beautifully variegated leaves. Despite the tendency for variegated cultivars to be less hardy than the species, this tree is very hardy in our climate, with no winterkill on my own or client’s trees in the five years since they were planted. There have been reports that the leaves lose their variegation – this may happen, but only in the second year after planting. Subsequent years show a return of full variegation. Photo: Sue Gaviller


The large leaves of Syringa vulgaris contrast nicely with the tiny needles of Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The larger Syringa species, for example S. vulgaris, S. prestoniae and S. reticulata are relatively coarse textured, meaning their leaves are quite large. Much of our garden foliage tends to be medium to fine textured, hence coarser texture is invaluable for creating emphasis and contrast. Syringa patula is a midsized shrub with medium size leaves and Syringa meyeri and hybrids are more compact shrubs with smaller foliage. The leaves, though smaller, still present interesting texture as they have a bit of a wave to them.

Compare the very different leaf shapes in the above three examples – the leathery heart-shaped leaves of S. vulgaris, the puckered ovate leaves of S. prestoniae and the smaller round, wavy leaves of S. meyeri. Photos: Sue Gaviller


All members of this genus, with the exception of S. reticulata, are roundish or oval. However, when purchased at the nursery, they are upright vase-shaped plants and gardeners mistakenly assume they will continue to grow this way. They do for a while but then begin putting out growth from the bottom and are hence accused of ‘suckering’. These are not really suckers, they are basal shoots and they aren’t necessarily bad.  To some degree this is how shrubs grow – they grow from the bottom as well from the top. The problem is, when allowed to grow naturally, many lilacs form very large round or oval figures so need to be situated with their generous future size in mind.

Syringa vulgaris can get quite large, some cultivars larger than others. When left to develop naturally they may get too large for a small city lot but they are useful in providing intermediate scale, relating larger trees to their smaller neighbours. Here two mature lilac cultivars, together with the spruce, create a well proportioned trio. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This mature Preston lilac has been planted too close to the fence to grow naturally. It has thus been pruned into the familiar arching vase so often associated with the genus. Despite the need for constant pruning, the effect is quite attractive. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Since they are rarely given the kind of room needed to reach full spread, they are often pruned heavily to create tree-like forms. While this can be quite elegant, it will require a commitment to maintaining the shape or the end result will be sloppy and misshapen. Many of us opt to prune this way because we’ve ‘inherited’ a mature, but inappropriately placed specimen, and must maintain it within the bounds of its available space.

Keep in mind too, that lilacs prefer full sun. They will lose their full-bodied form if they don’t get enough, becoming leggy and bare. This also happens with age as the lower branches become shaded by full crowns of foliage – pruning out of older stems will encourage new growth from the bottom.


If like me, the scent you yearn for is that old-fashioned lilac fragrance, then Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, is the finest aroma there is. Remember though, that not all cultivars have equally strong scent – I usually stick my nose into a bloom at the greenhouse to check it out before purchasing.

Syringa hyacinthiflora has a scent very similar to Syringa vulgaris so is a close second. Syringa meyeri is incredibly sweet-scented, some would say sickly sweet, but I quite enjoy its robust perfume. Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ is also strongly fragrant, but a little less sweet and Syringa Prestoniae, while strongly scented, seems slightly more vegetal than floral – but still pleasant.

Mmmmmm – can’t you just smell it? Photo: Sue Gaviller

My husband doesn’t like lilacs – he says they smell like little old ladies. I remind him it won’t be long before I’m a ‘little old lady’, but he assures me I’ll still smell good. And while he has admitted on several occasions that lilacs can look magnificent when in bloom, he remains unrepentant in his disdain for them. I doubt I’ve yet convinced him. How about you?


© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

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