University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
MORE THAN JUST LILAC
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
Lilacs are great large
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
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
bloom the last week of June. There are
two general groups of lilacs, the early bloomers which bloom in mid to
in this zone (sooner in warmer zones), and the late bloomers in early
June in this zone. The early bloomers
are mainly cultivars (cultivated varieties) of the common lilac species
vulgaris), while the late bloomers are often cultivars of various
or the Preston hybrids ( Syringa x
The Preston lilacs were first hybridized
by Isabella Preston at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Ontario. They are crosses between two species, and
include such popular cultivars as the purple ‘Donald Wyman’, the white
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
the single Preston hybrid ‘Agnes
Smith’. ‘Edith Cavell’ is a white double, as is
‘Primrose’ falls into this group, although the buds and flowers are a
light yellow. One of my favorite lilacs
is the Russian hybrid ‘Krasavitsa Moscovy’, seen also by its English
Beauty of Moscow. The pink-lilac buds
open to double white blooms tinged with lavender.
The second color group (II) is
violet. A very popular cultivar ‘Miss
Kim’ of the Manchurian lilac (patula) has been grown for over
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
more rare 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’
double flowers. Single lilac flowers are
seen on the hyacinth lilac (hyacinthiflora) ‘Assessippi’, or the
Preston hybrids ‘Charmian’ and
The Lemoine name is worth more
explanation, as this was the famous French family who in Victorian
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
been selected in the United States,
Canada, and other
such as Russia.
The fifth group (V) of
lilacs have pink
flowers, such as the single Preston hybrids ‘Helen’, ‘James
‘Miss Canada’. The species that were parents of the Preston hybrids (villosa and reflexa)
pink singles, as is another Asian species (wolfii). The hyacinth
‘Annabel’ is a pink double. ‘Marie
Frances’ is a single pink common lilac, while ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ is
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
single flowers, each with a white edge to the petals. Other
purple singles are the hyacinth lilac
‘Pocahontas’ and the Preston hybrid
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, complete garden center, or
lilac display garden such as at the University of Vermont Horticulture
Center (pss.uvm.edu/dept/hort_farm/). If
you have just the common lilac in your landscape, why not add some
colors? If you don’t have any, why not
start adding them if you have the room, sun, and well-drained soil. Allow sufficient space, as over time the
short cultivars can spread 6 feet across, while most spread up to 12
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