Syringa Lilacs

These are the lilacs, some of which will grow almost to tree size in time. They are beautiful shrubs thriving in all reasonably fertile soils and succeeding particularly well on chalk and limestone. They will grow in shade but flower most freely in warm, sunny places. Pruning is not essential but, if bushes must be restricted in size, old flowering stems can be cut back to young growths immediately after flowering. When lilacs are cut for flower decoration they automatically receive this kind of pruning.

The common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, is available in numerous varieties, both single and double flowered. Typical single varieties are Blue Hyacinth, mauve and blue; Charles X, purple; Clarke’s Giant, lavender and mauve; Congo, deep reddish purple; Maud Notcutt, white; Primrose, pale primrose yellow, and Souvenir de Louis Spaeth, wine red.

Syringa vulgaris

Typical double varieties are Charles Joly, purplish red; Kathleen Havemayer, purple and lilac pink; Madame Antoine Buchner, rosy mauve; Madame Lemoine, white; Michael Buchner, lilac, and Mrs Edward Harding, wine red. All these varieties are scented and all flower in May or early June.

A little later are the Canadian hybrids (Syringa prestoniae) such as Bellicent, rose pink, and Elinor, purplish red.

The Persian lilac, Syringa persica, is a smaller bush, to 7 ft. high, with sweetly scented pink flowers (white in variety alba) in May, and the Rouen lilac, S. chinensis, is a hybrid between this and the common lilac, similar in size to the Persian lilac and with white, pink or reddish-purple flowers according to variety.

Garden lilacs

Syringa 'Avalanche'

Syringa 'Avalanche' (Photo credit: Tie Guy II)

Many garden lilacs were raised in France at the turn of the century by Victor and Emile Lemoine, and many of these – such as ‘Madame Le-moine’ – are as popular as ever today. They are all varieties and hybrids springing from Syringa vulgaris; the ones crossed with S. oblata (predominate blue) are sometimes listed as S. hyacinthiflora.

The early varieties have now been joined by a great many new ones, many of which are not noticeably dif-ferent from one another. The average garden centre will only stock a selection of the best ones, reliably hardy and with large flower spikes.

Two long-time favourites are both white – ‘Madame Le-moine’, which has double flowers, and ‘Maud Notcutt’, which is single, ‘Vestale’ is another long-established, single-flowered white.

Good varieties in the classic lilac colour range with single flowers include ‘Esther Staley’ (almost pink), ‘Massena’ (deep red-purple) and ‘Clarke’s Giant’ (rosy-mauve to lilac blue – good for allowing to develop into a small tree).

One of the oldest of all lilacs, ‘Souvenir de Louis Spaeth’, with deep wine-red flowers, has always been extremely popular, as it has a reputation for being consistent and reliable. Another excellent deep-coloured one is ‘Congo’, with dark lilac-red spikes.

Notable among those with double flowers are ‘Charles Joly’ (deep purple-red, fading with age), ‘Katherine Have-meyer’ (purple-lavender fading to pink), ‘Madame Antoine Buchner’ (rosy mauve) and Mrs Edward Harding (claret-red, shaded with pink).

If you want a truly blue li-lac, look for ‘Blue Hyacinth’ (mauve in bud, single flowers appearing as early as the end of April). The yellow one is easy to spot – it’s called ‘Prim-rose’. For something rather unusual, look for ‘Sensation’, which is purple-red edged with white, though it can revert and lose the variegation.

Variations on a theme

With one or two exceptions, species lilacs are less widely stocked in garden centres, as the large-flowered garden varieties are more popular. For a really tiny garden, Syringa microphylla is an ideal choice, as it is much smaller than most, reaching no more than about 1.8m/6ft high and wide. Naturally the flower spikes are also smaller – but there should be a compensatory second flush in autumn. The flower colour is pink-purple, or rose-pink in the variety ‘Su-perba’, which continues to flower intermittently right through to mid-autumn.

Another fairly small one, growing about 2.1m/7ft each way, is the charming Persian lilac (S. x persica), with a neat rounded shape, long narrow leaves and small, but delightfully abundant, lilac or white flowers.

English: Syringa vulgaris, Oleaceae, Common Li...

Image via Wikipedia

For something distinctly different, and not too large, look for the cut-leaved lilac, S. x persica ‘Laciniata’. This has an open, graceful habit of growth, and dissected, feathery-looking leaves. Flowers are violet-purple.

About the same size, and guaranteed super-hardy, is the Rouen or Chinese lilac, S. x chinensis, a hybrid between S. laciniata and S. vulgaris that reaches 3m/10ft high and 2.1m/7ft across. This has lilac-purple flowers (reddish-lilac in the variety ‘Saugeana’). Also very hardy are the many varieties developed from S. x josiflexa. These are bigger shrubs, 3.5m/12ft high and wide. ‘Bellicent’ (clear pink) is a popular variety.

Choose your lilac carefully, especially if your garden is small – pick one of the less vigorous varieties, or the miniature S. microphylla. To get the colour you want, do not rely on catalogue or garden centre descriptions, or colour photographs. If at all possible, see the plant in flower before you buy. Even that may not be a reliable guide, as lilac colours are so changeable! But why worry – all lilacs are beautiful.

 

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