MORE THAN JUST LILAC
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Lilacs are great large shrubs for northern landscapes. They require little care, are long lived, and provide welcome color and fragrance in spring. You may not realize that by planting different selections of these old-fashioned shrubs you can have blooms for six weeks or more, and that they come in many colors other than lilac.
In my USDA zone 4 garden, I have lilacs that begin bloom on
average the second week of May, and the last ends bloom the last
week of June. There are two general groups of lilacs, the early
bloomers which bloom in mid- to late-May in this zone (sooner in
warmer zones), and the late bloomers in early- to mid-June in this
zone. The early bloomers are mainly cultivars (cultivated
varieties) of the common lilac species (Syringa vulgaris),
while the late bloomers are often cultivars of various species or
of the Preston hybrids (Syringa x prestoniae).
The Preston lilacs were first hybridized by Isabella Preston at
the Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Ontario. They are crosses
between two species (reflexa and villosa), and
include such popular cultivars as the purple ‘Donald Wyman’, the
white ‘Agnes Smith’, or the pink ‘James MacFarlane’.
Lilac specialists have come up with seven color groupings for
lilacs that sometimes are seen with Roman numerals. Unless noted,
these examples of good lilac choices are of the common lilac. The
first group (I) are the white lilacs such as the single common
lilac ‘Alba’, or the single Preston hybrid ‘Agnes Smith’. ‘Edith
Cavell’ is a white double, as is ‘Mme. Lemoine’. ‘Primrose’ falls
into this group, although the buds and flowers are a unique light
yellow. One of my favorite lilacs is the Russian hybrid
‘Krasavitsa Moscovy’, seen also by its English name Beauty of
Moscow. The pink-lilac buds open to double white blooms tinged
The second color group (II) is violet. A very popular cultivar
‘Miss Kim’ of the Manchurian lilac (patula) has been grown
for over half a century. Another very popular single in this
color is the Korean lilac (meyeri) ‘Palibin’. Both flower
a week or so later than the common lilacs, and are shorter. They
make rounded shrubs six to eight feet high. Another single violet
is the common lilac ‘Albert Holden’, while the rarer Russian
hybrid ‘Nadezhda’ (meaning “hope”) is double.
Blue is the third (III) color group of lilacs and is less
common. Most seen is the common lilac ‘President Lincoln’ with
single flowers. Similar are ‘Wedgewood Blue’ and ‘Wonderblue’.
‘Oliver de Serres’ and ‘President Grevy’ are a couple of the less
common blue doubles.
The true color lilac is the fourth group (IV), yet is less common
than you might think. Common lilac cultivars ‘Michael Buchner’
and ‘Victor Lemoine’ have double flowers. Single lilac flowers
are seen on the hyacinth lilac (hyacinthiflora)
‘Assessippi’, or the Preston hybrids ‘Charmian’ and ‘Isabella’.
The Lemoine name is worth more explanation, as this was the
famous French family who in Victorian times bred so many common
lilac cultivars, some that we still have today. The purple
‘Charles Joly’, the lilac ‘Michael Buchner’, and the blue
‘President Grevy’ are examples. In fact, the term “French lilacs”
is often applied to any cultivar of common lilac, even though in
recent years many have been selected in the United States, Canada,
and other countries such as Russia.
The fifth group (V) of lilacs have pink flowers, such as the
single Preston hybrids ‘Helen’, ‘James MacFarlane’, or ‘Miss
Canada’. The species that were parents of the Preston hybrids (villosa
and reflexa) are pink singles, as is another Asian
species (wolfii). The hyacinth lilac ‘Annabel’ is a pink
double. ‘Marie Frances’ is a single pink common lilac, while
‘Katherine Havemeyer’ is a reddish-pink double.
Red is the sixth (VI) color in lilacs, with the common lilac
‘Congo’ a single. ‘Beacon’ and ‘Hiawatha’ are single red Preston
hybrids. ‘Jessie Hepler’ is a red single of a hybrid species (x josiflexa).
A couple of the less common red doubles are the common Lemoine
lilac ‘President Poincare’ and the hyacinth lilac ‘Sweetheart’.
The last (VII) but largest color group of lilacs is purple.
Single common lilacs include ‘Ludwig Spathe’ and ‘Monge’.
‘Sensation’ is appropriately named, as this common lilac has
purple single flowers, each with a white edge to the petals.
Other purple singles are the hyacinth lilac ‘Pocahontas’ and the
Preston hybrid ‘Donald Wyman’. ‘Charles Joly’ is a double purple
cultivar of common lilac.
Look for some of these cultivars and colors the next time you
visit a nursery or lilac display garden. A couple of the more
extensive and famous displays are the Centennial Lilac Garden,
north of Niagara Falls (over 1200 plants of over 200 varieties),
and Highland Park in Rochester, New York. The latter hosts a
lilac festival during mid-May each year, with 2018 marking 120
years of this free festival—the largest such of its kind in North
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