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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