Judith’s garden: It’s time for lilacs

Spring arrived late this year. Then suddenly this week, and seemingly overnight, “Lilac Time” came to the Vermont.
I am talking about the well-known Common Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), those wonderfully hardy shrubs beloved by northern gardeners, with their unforgettable fragrance and colors ranging from pure white to deep purple.
Over the years these lilacs have come to symbolize not only the emergence of spring after a long cold winter, but also the resilience of early settlers who carried small plants with them as they journeyed to a new life.
Common Lilacs are incredibly long-lived plants, often found blooming around old Vermont farmsteads and even cellar holes. The four in my garden are at least 60 years old, and maybe older.
Common lilacs, also called French Lilacs, originated in south-eastern Europe and have been in cultivation for over five hundred years.  They come in colors ranging from the pure white Madame Lemoine to the deep  purple “Ludwig Spaeth.”  I am particularly partial to the intensely fragrant cultivar “Sensation” with deep purple flowers edged with white.
BY MID-JUNE Judith’s Miss Kim lilac is covered in blooms. Photo by Dick Conrad
Most are large shrubs growing to about 12-feet high, but there is a new cultivar, Tiny Dancer, that grows to only about 5-feet high.
Common lilacs do have their drawbacks. Their bloom time is brief — usually lasting no more than a week.  And, for the gardener, they may not be the most well-behaved shrubs to have in a flower bed, as they tend to sprout thick suckers in quite a wide circle about the parent plant.
But with their vibrant colors and intoxicating fragrance most of us will gladly put up with the inconvenience of having to keep the suckers at bay. 
And this week, while the lilacs are blooming and fragrant, it is the perfect time to visit your local nursery and let your nose help you choose one or more for your garden.  Miller Hill Farm in Sudbury, with its wonderful old farm buildings and beautiful views, as well as Rockydale Nursery in Bristol renowned for its extensive gardens, are both very special places to visit and offer a number of lovely lilac cultivars to tempt you. 
The ‘other’ lilacs
Lilac lovers also welcome those “other lilacs” that  wait until June to put on their show. By adding a few to your garden you can extend the lilac season to a full six weeks.
Besides, all lilac flowers are a magnet for the Tiger Swallowtail butterflies which, at least in my garden, generally do not arrive in any number until early June — thus mostly missing the common lilacs.   But, once here, they swarm all over the June-blooming bushes — another reason to grow some of these “other lilacs.”
Dwarf Korean Little-leaf lilac
THE DWARF KOREAN little-leaf lilac makes a delightful addition for even the smallest garden. Photo by Dick Conrad
The first of the “other lilacs” to flower in my garden is the dwarf Korean Little-leaf lilac, (Syringa meyeri ‘Paliban’).  It has lots of smallish lilac-colored fragrant flowers and its rounded leaves are — true to name — petite and tidy, so it also makes a good backdrop for nearby perennials that flower later in the season.
It is a gem of a small shrub, usually remaining about four feet high without excessive pruning, that works nicely when planted in groups.  Some years ago I planted five of these shrubs along the bed outside our bedroom window. The bushes have gradually filled in by putting out suckers to create a low-growing hedge. However (unlike the common lilac) I have not found it a problem to keep these suckers contained.
Miss Kim Lilac
IN JUNE TIGER Swallowtail butterflies flock to all the lilacs. Photo by Dick Conrad
The next to flower is “Miss Kim Lilac” (Syringa pubescens subsp. patula). I love her big floppy panicles of pale purple flowers which, like all lilacs, are butterfly magnets.
Miss Kim is certainly deservedly popular among gardeners.  Not only does she sport bountiful fragrant flowers in mid-June, but her leaves take on a beautiful bronze color in the fall.
Maybe, lured by her diminutive name, gardeners tend to use Miss Kim lilacs to fill in small gaps around the place.
But beware:  Miss Kim is no diminutive lady!  Left unpruned, eventually she will grow quite large — easily 7-feet high and wide.  I have actually seen a very old unpruned Miss Kim growing 12-feet high and wide. So take this into consideration as you choose a spot for her.
I planted three shrubs together, creating a single dense clump about twelve feet in diameter outside our kitchen window. Now each year a pair of catbirds chooses this safe space to build a nest and raise their family.
Preston Lilacs
Over 100 years ago the well-known plant hybridist, Isabella Preston, was busy at work hybridizing lilacs at the Ottawa Experimental Farm. Her crosses between Syringa reflexa and S. villosa resulted in a collection of late blooming “Preston Lilacs” that has earned her a place in gardening history.
Preston lilacs are great garden shrubs for the back of a bed and — best of all — they do not sucker. I have the cultivar “Minuet” (pictured, right) which grows about 7-8 feet tall,  and every year during the last two weeks of June puts on an amazing display that conveniently coincides with the Siberian Irises and Catmint.  The result is stunning — hikers walking along our road sometimes stop in to admire.
Japanese Tree Lilac
Japanese tree Lilacs are, as their name implies, small trees that grow up to 30’ tall, and they bring the lilac season to a graceful close. You can see an amazing and beautiful mature specimen showing off its  creamy-white flower panicles at the end of June at Rocky Dale Gardens.
Tree lilacs lilac are also known as “tough trees” for “difficult sites.” And since they are also salt tolerant they are sometimes planted as street trees.
So what about an ever-blooming lilac?
Several years ago now Proven Winners introduced a newly hybridized cultivar called “Boomerang” which they claimed was ever-blooming.
And suddenly a huge controversy erupted in gardening circles. For some people the very idea of having a lilac that bloomed in September was a complete travesty that would ruin the specialness of our brief spring season, and all that lilacs have come to signify.
AT ROCKYDALE GARDENS in Bristol, this glorious Tree Lilac closes out the springtime lilac season. Photo by Dick Conrad
But for busy homeowners, perhaps juggling a career and little kids and looking for a splash of color in their gardens throughout the season, it clearly would be a blessing. I can certainly empathize with this point of view, as I have been there too.
One also has to admire the tenacity and ingenuity of Tim Wood, the man behind Boomerang. The story of how he did this feat provides a fascinating insight into breeding techniques that can result in the whiz-bang plant introductions that drive today’s horticultural industry.
It seems to boil down to how much we want our gardens to reflect a “sense of place.”  I like to think of my Vermont country garden as a celebration of the ever-changing seasons of New England.  So here a lilac blooming alongside fall asters, black-eyed Susans and tall waving grasses would seem out of place.   Thus — for my particular garden — I am not tempted by Boomerang or its counterparts.
But I do have room — both  in my heart and in my garden — for those “other lilacs,” the ones that bloom in June alongside the irises and bring swarms of Swallowtail butterflies for us to enjoy.
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 northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.

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