Lilac time: Late spring made us wait for annual blossoms

“Lilac Time” symbolizes the coming of spring after a long cold winter, and the resilience of early New England settlers transporting small lilac plants as they journeyed to their new lives.
Spring was late this year. On May 14, as we drove home from Burlington Airport (after visiting gardens in North Carolina, where spring had long since come and gone) we were amazed to see the lilacs, which usually bloom before Mother’s Day, still in bud.
Then, seemingly overnight on May 19, Lilac Time came to the Champlain Valley — although up here in Goshen it would take another week.
I am talking about the well-known common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) with their unforgettable fragrance and colors that range from deep purple to pure white. Common lilacs, also called French lilacs, are native to southeastern Europe and have been in cultivation for over 500 years.
Although they are full of symbolism, common lilacs have a few drawbacks for today’s gardener. Eventually they grow quite big, up to 15 feet high and 8 feet across, which may be out of scale for smaller gardens. And they have a tendency to sprout thick suckers far from the parent plant. So, to avoid creating a lilac thicket in your flowerbed, you must clip those suckers at first sight.
But because we love their fragrance and their message of spring, most of us will find a spot for a couple of Syringa vulgaris near the house, and gladly put up with the inconvenience of having to keep the suckers at bay.
Lilac nectar is a favorite food for adult swallowtail butterflies which, at least in Goshen, arrive en masse towards the end of May …. just as my common lilacs are finishing flowering. But I also grow three June-blooming lilacs, thus extending my “Lilac Time” while providing a feast for the butterflies.
First to flower is the fragrant dwarf Korean lilac, Syringa meyeri, a gem of a shrub that stays about five feet high with minimal suckering, making a nice backdrop for my summer perennials.
This is followed by the Miss Kim lilac (Syringa pubescens subsp. patula “Miss Kim”), which is deservedly popular among gardeners. Not only does Miss Kim sport large, fragrant, pale-lilac flower panicles in mid-June but, come the fall, the leaves will turn a beautiful bronze. However, maybe lured by her diminutive name, gardeners tend to pop Miss Kim lilacs into small gaps around the place. But beware: Miss Kim is no diminutive lady! Although slow-growing, eventually she will become quite large — up to nine feet high and seven feet wide. I have even seen an ancient specimen that was over 12 feet across.
The last to flower are the Preston lilacs. They grow about eight feet tall but, unlike common lilacs, they do not sucker! My favorite is “Minuet,” a dense shrub that, for two weeks at the end of June, is truly covered in flowers, making a stunning match with the blue Siberian iris that bloom at the same time. People driving by on the road actually stop to ask what it is!
It is over 100 years since plant hybridist Isabella Preston worked at the Ottawa Experimental Farm painstakingly crossing different species of lilacs, which culminated in a series of late-blooming “Preston lilacs,” (a cross between Syringa reflexa and S. villosa) that earned her a place in garden history.
And lastly, I want to mention the tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), growing 25 feet high and sporting huge white flower panicles toward the end of June. This lovely tree is also salt tolerant making it an ideal choice for planting close to the road. I do not have one in my garden, but there is a gorgeous specimen growing in the nursery of Rocky Dale Gardens in Bristol.
A few years ago Proven Winners introduced a newly hybridized cultivar called “Boomerang” said to bloom from spring until fall (pausing briefly in the heat of summer). Immediately a huge controversy erupted on the Internet. Purists denounced it as a travesty that would ruin the specialness of spring and all that lilacs signify. But for busy homeowners, perhaps juggling a career while caring for small children, who want a bit of color in their suburban garden throughout the season, it appeared like a marvel of modern hybridization. I can empathize with this latter viewpoint, as I have been there too!
One also has to admire the tenacity and ingenuity of Tim Wood, the man responsible for Boomerang, whose story offers a fascinating insight into the breeding techniques behind today’s horticultural industry.
It seems to come down to how our gardens convey a sense of place. My Vermont country garden is a celebration of our ever-changing seasons of New England. Here I feel that a lilac blooming alongside the fall asters and black-eyed Susans would just seem — well — out of place.
So, for my particular garden and at this point in my life, I am not seduced by Boomerang! But I still have room in my heart — and in my garden — for those other lilacs that bloom in June alongside the roses and irises, while also bringing me swarms of butterflies.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen, where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.com.
layout professional: please run this in a box float in the story:
The symbolism of lilacs has been with us for many generations, as is evident in this brief verse from Walt Whitman’s classic poem about beauty and resilience even in death, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”:
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle — and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

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