Come join me this Tuesday, June 7th at Willowdale Estate, from 4:00 to 6:00, for a house and garden tour of this beautiful, and beautifully restored, historic Arts and Crafts manse. Members of the Willowdale staff will be giving guided tours of the house and I will be available to talk about the garden, including how the Arts and Crafts movement influenced our horticultural decisions. Admission is free and the event is open to the public.
Thank you for all the thoughtful comments and praise for last week’s column “The most highly scented lilacs…” Next week I will send you information on lilac culture as this is the ideal time of year to trim and shape your lilacs for maximum blooms next year.
Single flowers of the Common White Lilac
Reader Irma wrote the following: I picked my lilacs at their height. In water, in the vase they lasted 2 days and drooped! Last year the same. I couldn’t believe it. Do you know why?
Hi Irma, Lilacs have woody stems and do not easily absorb water in the vase. Depending on whatever tool is handy, I do one of two things,. With a hammer, crush the stems, at least six inches along the length, and immediately place in a vase filled with tepid or warm water. Over the years I have also discovered that peeling the stems with a vegetable peeler is just as effective, and less messy. Peel away the woody outer layer, all around the stem, again at least six inches up the stalk (peel down to green). Still, even with treating the stems, the arrangement will be fleeting and only look beautiful for several days. The scent of the lilacs permeating throughout your home is worth the extra effort!
Double-flowered ‘Beauty of Moscow’
Many wrote last week to say they enjoyed the excerpt from Amy Lowell’s gorgeous poem Lilacs. Here it is in entirety:
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
Surely at the top of the list of shrubs to grow for creating the framework of an intimate garden or garden room are lilacs, in particular Syringa vulgaris and their French hybrids. Syringa vulgaris are grown for their exquisite beauty in both form and color of blossoms, although it is their fragrance flung far and throughout gardens and neighborhoods that make them so unforgettable.
Not all species of Syringa and cultivars of Syringa vulgaris are scented. The early French hybrids and hybrids of Leonid Kolesnikov have retained their fragrance. Syringa oblata has a similar fragrance, though is not nearly as potent. Several of the Chinese species have a spicy cinnamon scent, while many of the Asian species and their hybrids have very little, if any, fragrance. To find your personal preference, I suggest a visit to a local arboretum, or take your nose to the nursery during the extended period of time (six to eight weeks, or so) in which the different cultivars of S. vulgaris are in bloom.
‘Monge’ Lemoine in the foreground
Nearly everywhere lilacs are grown (and here I am only referring to S. vulgaris), they are called by some variety of the word lilac. Perhaps the word lilac stems from the Persian word Lilak or Lilaf meaning bluish. The French say Lilas, the Spanish say Lila, and the Portuguese Lilaz. In old English lilacs were called Laylock, Lilack, and Lilock.
Lilacs are native to and found growing among the limestone rocks on the hillsides and mountainsides throughout southeastern Europe, in the Balkans, Moldavia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Yugoslavia. Cultivated by local mountain herdsmen, they were taken from the peasant villages of central Europe to the garden courts of Istanbul. In 1563, the Flemish scholar and traveler Ogier Ghiselin, Count de Busbecq, Ambassador of Ferdinand I of Austria to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, brought back to Vienna gifts from the sultan’s garden. Attracting much attention was the lilac. Seven years later, in 1570, Ogier Ghiselin, Count de Busbecq, and then Curator of the Imperial Court Library, accompanied the Archduchess Elizabeth from Vienna to Paris where she was betrothed to King Charles IX of France. Count de Busbecq journeyed to France with a shoot of Syringa vulgaris, where it soon began to fill the gardens of Paris.
Two color variants sprang up in European gardens beside the wild blue- flowered lilac, a nearly white flowered variant with lighter foliage and a taller- growing variant with deeper purple flowers. Hybridizers quickly set about to create different forms and color versions from these two variants.
Victor Lemoine of the famed nursery Victor Lemoine et Fils at Nancy in Lorraine Province continued the work of hybridizing lilacs. From 1878 to 1950, Victor and his wife, their son Emile, and their grandson, Henri, created 214 lilac cultivars. The cornerstone of the Lemoine’s lilac hybridizing program was a nat- ural sport that bore two corollas, one inside the other, making it the first dou- ble. This double was subsequently named ‘Azurea Plena.’ Because of the Lemoine family’s success in turning ordinary lilacs into fancy double-flowered lilacs in nearly every hue imaginable, they became known as the “French lilacs.” Spreading throughout Europe, the French lilacs were brought to the Russian court by French travelers. Well suited to the soil and climate of Russia, they soon spread far and wide. Several decades later, the Russian hybridist Leonid Kolesnikov continued the successful work of the Lemoines with his own exquisite variants.
‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ translated to ‘Beauty of Moscow’ Leonid Alexseevitch Kolesnikov Hybrid
The French and Dutch colonists transported lilacs to North America. These cherished cuttings, wrapped in burlap and wet straw tucked into suitcases for the long journey across the Atlantic, traveled well and were soon growing throughout the colonies. By 1753 the Quaker botanist John Bartram of Philadelphia was complaining that lilacs were already too numerous. One of two of the oldest col- lections of lilacs in North America are at the Governor Wentworth home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, planted by the governor in 1750. The second collection, perhaps one hundred years older, is at Mackinac Island in Michigan, where French Jesuit missionaries living in the area are thought to have planted them as early as 1650.
With their traveling fragrance, versatility in the landscape, and their ability to live tens, perhaps even hundreds of years, lilacs are garden heirlooms. When selecting lilacs to grow for creating the framework of the garden, take the time to choose wisely. Some lilacs grow readily into a tree shape (‘Beauty of Moscow’), while others are somewhat relatively lower growing cultivars; ‘Wedgwood Blue’ comes to mind, and still others, the common white lilac (Syringa vulgaris var. alba), sucker more freely. And bear in mind that different lilacs bloom over an extended period of time. If you wish to have a blue lilac blooming simultaneously with a white lilac, then it is worthwhile to determine whether a specific cultivar is an early, mid, or late season bloomer. The following is a selection of lilacs growing in our garden, arranged in their sequential progression of flowering, with considerable overlapping. They are all highly scented or we wouldn’t grow them. The last photo below shows the different colors in lilac blossoms of white, pink, blue, lavender, magenta.
Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Maiden’s Blush’
S. x hyacinthiflora ‘Maiden’s Blush’ (1966) Skinner ~ Single, pale rose pink; shows different colors of pink under different soil conditions. In a warmer climate and lighter soils it is a paler shade of pink, in heavier soils ‘Maiden’s Blush’ has more lavender undertones.
‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ translated to ‘Beauty of Moscow.’ Leonid Alexseevitch Kolesnikov (1974) ~ Double, lavender-rose tinted buds opening to white-tinted pink. Grown throughout Russia. Vigorous upright habit, useful for growing into a tree-shape. Very extended blooming period.
Syringa vulgaris var. purpurea. Common purple lilac ~ Lavender, the wild species seen growing throughout its native land. The common purple is the most widely distributed form of lilac. The lilac of old gardens.
‘Wedgwood Blue’ John Fiala (1981) ~ Hanging panicles of beautiful true blue florets. Lilac-pink hued buds. Somewhat lower growing.
‘Madame Florent Stepman’ (1908) ~ Satiny ivory white florets from rose- washed buds. Pure white when fully opened. Tall and upright growing. One of the most extensively cultivated for the florist trade.
‘President Grevy’ Lemoine (1886) ~ Pure blue, immense panicles of sweet starry florets.
‘Marie Legraye’ (1840) ~ Single, diminutive florets, radiant white, lighter green foliage.
Located on the southeast side of our home is the primary pathway, which we walk up and down many times in the course of the day. We built the path using bricks from a pile of discarded chimney bricks. Ordinarily I would not recommend chimney bricks, as they are ﬁred differently from paving bricks and are therefore less sturdy. We laid the brick in a herring bone pattern and luckily they have held without cracking and splitting. The warm red tones of the brick complement the creamy yellow clapboards of the house. A tightly woven brick path is a practical choice for a primary path as it helps keep mud out of the home.
Planted alongside the house walls and on the opposing side of the path, in close proximity to our neighbor’s fence, are the larger plantings of Magnolia virginiana, ‘Dragon Lady hollies,’ Syringa, Philadelphus, and semi-dwarf fruiting trees, Prunus and Malus. Weaving through the background tapestry of foliage and ﬂowers are fragrant ﬂowering vines and rambling roses. These include the most richly scented cultivars of honeysuckle and Bourbon roses. Viburnum carlcephalum, butterﬂy bushes, meadowsweet, New Jersey tea, and Paeonia rockii comprise a collection of mid-size shrubs. They, along with perennials, bulbs, and annuals—narcissus, tulips, iris, herbaceous peonies, lavender, Russian sage, lilies, and chrysanthemums —are perfect examples of fragrant plants growing at mid-level. Closer to the ground is a carpet of scented herbs, full and abundant and spilling onto the brick walkway. The length of our pathway is lined with aromatic alpine strawberries, thyme, and sweet alyssum. This most sunny area in our garden permits us to grow a variety of kitchen herbs. The foliage of the herbs releases their scents when brushed against. Including herbs in the ﬂower borders provides an attractive and practical addition to the fragrant garden.
Mock Orange (Philadelphus ‘Innocence’) and the Friendly Red Admiral Butterfly
The fragrances are held within by the house and neighboring fence and the living perfumes of ﬂowers and foliage are noticeable throughout the growing season. All the plants are immediately available to see, touch, and smell. The intimate aspects of the garden are revealed by the close proximity of plantings along a much-used garden path.
Native Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)
Male Cecropia Moth on Sweetbay Foliage
When selecting plants for a fragrant garden, it is not wise to assume that just because your Mom had sublimely scented peonies growing in her garden, all peonies will be as such. This simply is not the case. Take the time to investigate nurseries and arboretums during plants’ blooming period and read as much literature as possible. There is an abundance of information to be gleaned and sifted through to ﬁnd the most richly scented version of a plant. When seeking a fragrant cultivar, one may ﬁnd that it is usually an older variety, one that has not had scent replaced for an improbable color, convenient size, or double blossoms by a well-meaning hybridizer. And despite our best effort to ﬁnd the most richly scented version, there will be disappointments along the way, as fragrance is highly mutable. Soil conditions and climate play their role, and some plants simply don’t perform as advertised.
A well-thought-out pathway looks inviting when seen from the street and the fragrance beckons the visitor to enter. The interwoven scents emanating from an array of sequentially blooming ﬂowers and aromatic foliage create a welcoming atmosphere. Have you noticed your garden is more fragrant after a warm summer shower or on a day when the morning fog has lifted? Scented ﬂowers are sweetest when the air is temperate and full of moisture. Plant your garden of fragrance to reﬂect the time of year when you will most often be in the garden to enjoy your hard work.
There are few modern gardens planted purely for fragrance. Maybe this is because there is now a tremendous variety of appealing plant material, offered by growers to eager gardeners ready to purchase what is visually enticing, by color and by size. Perhaps it is so because in the past fragrant plantings served the function of disguising unpleasant odors from outhouses and farmyards, and we no longer have to address these concerns. But the pendulum has begun to swing (albeit slowly) toward planting a garden designed for fragrance. Scent, along with rhythm, scale, harmony in color, and form, should ideally be an equal component in garden design. Plant scented ﬂowering shrubs under windows and close to and around the porch. Plant fragrant vines to climb up the walls near window sashes that will be open in the summertime. Plant scented white ﬂowering plants near to where you might brush against them while dining al fresco or to embower a favorite garden spot designed for rest and rejuvenation.
“True vespertine ﬂowers are those that withhold their sweetness from day and give it freely at night. “(Louise Beebe Wilder). Imagine the dreamlike enchantment of the fragrant path through the night garden. The vibrantly colored ﬂowers have vanished. All that you will see are the white and palest shades of pink, yellow, and lavender ﬂowers reﬂecting the moonlight. Perhaps you will have the breathtaking experience of an encounter with a Lunar moth. Syringa vulgaris ‘Beauty of Moscow,’ Madonna lily, Philadelphus, Japanese honeysuckle, Lilium regale, Nicotianna alata, Oriental lily, tuberose, night phlox, peacock orchid, Stephanotis ﬂoribunda, gardenia, Jasminum sambac, Angel’s trumpet, and moonﬂowers are but a few of the white ﬂowers with exotic night-scents for an entrancing sleeping garden.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
— J o h n K e a t s ( 1 7 9 5 – 1 8 2 1 )
Excerpt from Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! (David R. Godine, Publisher)