Lilac: The Color of Fragrance
Each year I teach a number of garden design classes and inevitably someone wishes to know if there is a formula for the design process. This leads to a discussion on the ill-fated ‘cookbook’ design process, that solely focuses upon the Elements and Principles of Design. The flaw of this ‘recipe’ is that both the Elements and Principles focus upon the human sense of vision and ignore the remaining 4 senses. Certainly, a Garden would not be complete if it was not for something soft to touch, soothing to hear, satisfying to taste or sweet to smell. For the garden in May, nothing says ‘sweet to smell’ like Syringa, the genus for Lilac.
Lilacs are found in the Olive or Oleaceae family and like most plants in this family, are resistant to deer browse! The various species are distributed from the Balkan Peninsula of South Eastern Europe to Eastern Asia. The name Syringa is derived from the Greek Surinx or Syrinx, meaning a hollow tube or pipe. The central pith found in the older stems of many Lilacs is hollow and the stems were used to make Shepherd’s pipes or flutes! The common name recognizes the flower color, which is typically a bluish purple or lilac. The species most frequently encountered in gardens in Syringa vulgaris, a native of the stony, dry hillsides of the Balkan Peninsula. The species epithet of vulgaris does not infer that the plant is rude, but rather that it is common! Interestingly, this species did not appear in gardens as the result of a plant expedition or other scholarly pursuits, but rather was found in gardens within the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) and from there emanated out to gardens throughout Europe to become ‘common’. The popularity of this species was further enhanced by the prolific breeding of the Frenchman, Victor Lemoine (1823-1911). Lemoine not only produced many cultivars within other genera, such as the double flowered Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’, he created over 200 cultivars of Lilac, many of which sport doubles or flowers with extra petals – many of which are still in production today! As a result, Syringa vulgaris is also referred to as the French Lilac.
Syringa vulgaris is an upright, multistemmed shrub, reaching 12’ in height, with a long life expectancy. The collection at Rutgers Gardens was planted during the 1930’s and thrives to this day! Cold hardy to zone 3, full sun, well-drained soils and a neutral pH are best, but it is very forgiving and can thrive in less than ideal conditions. As the individual stems age to the point of declining vigor, they should be trimmed back to approximately 12” above the ground in spring, stimulating new and vigorous shoots to flush growth. Come late summer, the leaves are often the victim of powdery mildew, which appears as a white coating on the leaf. It is not harmful to the plants, but simply prevents the development of fall color and the leaves drop green.
Another species worth growing is Syringa meyeri var. spontanea ‘Palibin’. The straight species was discovered in a garden near Beijing China by Frank Nichola Meyer (1875-1918) in 1909. Interestingly, Meyer was as prolific at collecting as Lemoine was at breeding. He collected over 2,500 different plants from throughout Asia before his untimely and mysterious death! The straight species creates an attractively mounded shrub, growing to nearly 8’ and over 10’ wide. The form ‘Palibin’ is more compact in size, reaching 5’ tall by 8’ wide and honors the Russian botanist Ivan Vladimirovich Palibin. Palibin collected a number of Lilacs and other species, but this particular plant is actually of unknown origin. It blooms slightly later than the Syringa vulgaris with a pink-purple flower that literally covers the plant. In addition, this form has lovely deep purple fall color and few issues with powdery mildew!
There is a bevy of additional Lilac species, all deliciously fragrant and all reminding us that the key to good garden design should never be cookbook in style. A good garden is born and develops through the needs and satisfaction of our senses!