This past autumn I wrote about a Black Swallowtail caterpillar that was discovered munching on the parley plants at Wolf Hill Garden Center in Gloucester. The caterpillar had left the parsley plant and wandered around the office at Wolf Hill, where it had pupated, or in other words, turned into a chrysalis, on the razor-thin edge of an envelope. By chance, I met Kate, who works at Wolf Hill, one afternoon at Eastern Point while I was filming Monarchs, where she and her friend were looking at the butterflies through binoculars. She asked if I would be interested in taking care of the chrysalis over the winter. I of course said I would be delighted to do so!
The butterfly chrysalis lived in a terrarium all winter. The terrarium was placed in an unheated entryway. I thought it best for the chrysalis to experience normal winter temperatures rather than live in a heated home where it might be fooled into thinking it was spring. In the early spring we brought the terrarium onto our unheated front porch so that it would be exposed to both the normal outdoor temperature and daylight .
A stunning male Black Swallowtail emerged last week. Earlier that very day I had seen a female Black Swallowtail nectaring at azaleas at a farm in a neighboring town. See the original post on Good Morning Gloucester about Kate and the Wolf Hill caterpillar.
Lilacs are found growing (where winters are cold enough to afford proper growth and ample blossoms) from the smallest rural village to the urban courtyard. They grow the very best in zones 3, 4, and 5, in the colder regions of zones 6 and 7, and in the warmer regions of zone 2. They will tolerate temperatures of -35 to -40f, though they may suffer some damage from windchill. If temperatures dip to such extreme cold in your region, site the lilac out of the path of chilling winter winds. Lilacs will tolerate frozen ground but not frozen pockets where water does not drain properly. Requiring excellent drainage, they grow best along rocky, limestone hillsides, suggesting just how important good drainage is. When planted in a mesic site, lilacs flower adequately, although, by late summer the foliage may wilt and turn moldy.
Syringa vulgaris ‘President Grevy’
Lilacs perform best in sandy, gravelly loam mixed with organic matter such as compost and aged manure. Keep the surrounding soil free from weeds with an annual mulch of compost. In early spring sprinkle a cup of wood ashes around the base of the lilac and work it gently into the top layer of soil. Every three years or so apply a cup of ground limestone to the soil, again gently working it into the soil so as not to injure the roots.
Lilacs require full sun to nearly full sun to set flower buds. Where optimal sunlight isn’t always available, one may have some success with pushing the envelope. We are growing lilacs in several locations in half sun, and although they would be fuller in form with far more flowers, all are growing well.
The overall shape of lilacs is greatly improved with an annual pruning. Immediately after flowering is the ideal time to attend to this not unpleasant task. The job becomes less manageable as the shrub grows tall and leggy in a few short years.
After the lilac has become established and is a desirable size and shape, cut to the ground approximately one third of the oldest branches and thinnest suck- ers. This allows the bush to renew itself and for the energy of the bush to go into the remaining growth. Leaving the strongest trunks that form the armature of the shrub, prune diseased or pest-infested shoots or branches, and remove all declining stems, thin suckers, and small, twiggy branches. Some lilacs produce suckers rarely, if at all, and others sucker aggressively. Remove all spent flowers immediately after blooming, snipping very close to the tail end of the panicle so as not to remove the new growth that will provide you with next year’s flowers.
If you are growing lilacs as a background shrub or as a small tree, allow only two to three main stems as trunks, removing lower branches and cutting all other shoots to the ground. ’Beauty of Moscow’, ‘Madame Florent Stepman’ and the common lilac, both var. purpurea and alba, are all well suited for growing into a small multi-stemmed tree. Conversely if you do not want your lilac to become a tree, prune to a height of eight to nine feet, which keeps the blossoms at eye level.
Natives Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)
The small florets of the pagoda dogwood are a bee-magnet.
With its versatile form and lovely heart-shaped leaves the lilac is an exceptional companion to a wide range of flowering trees and shrubs. The extended period of florescence a well-planned lilac hedge provides coincides with the long flowering period of our native pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and Catawba rhododendrons. Just as the Sargent crabapple (Malus sargentii) is at its flowering peak, with masses of sublimely scented white blossoms, the earliest lilacs begin their fragrant parade. In our garden, the blossoms of Prunus, namely peach, pear and plum, overlap with the flowering of ‘Beauty of Moscow,’ ‘Maidens Blush,’ and ‘President Grevy.’ They are planted in close vicinity along the garden path. The newly emerging fragrant blossoms of Prunus interwoven with the pervasive perfume of lilacs give The Scent of All Spring!
Lilacs are one of the loveliest shrubs to grow as a tall hedge, and they integrate magnificently into the country hedge of mixed shrubs and trees. The ineffable beauty and fragrance of lilacs are enhanced by the many varieties of suitable companion plants. The short list of plants described here is particularly appealing during the lilac’s period of flowering, for their compatible scents, colors, and foliage or for creating a sequentially blooming combination of fragrances. ‘Korean Spice’ viburnum, nearing the end of its florescence while the lilacs are beginning theirs, blooms in pink infused white, snowball shaped flower heads, with an intensely sweet and spicy aroma. Variegated Solomon Seal, Viola ‘Etain,’ late-season jonquils and narcissus, and lily of-the-valley all bloom simultaneously with early lilacs. The most sublimely scented tree peony ‘Rockii,’ with white petals washed with pale rose, and magenta-purple splotches at its heart center, also flowers during lilac time. Later in the season, to coincide with later-flowering lilacs, come the Iris pallida , Iris germanica, and native Iris versicolor, English bluebells, early species daylilies with their honey-citrus scent, ‘Bridal Wreath’ spirea, blue and white columbine ‘Origami,’ and white bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’). Although not at all fragrant, I find the warm, rich yellow color of native honeysuckle Lonicera ‘John Clayton’ particularly appealing with the white and cool blue-lavender-hued lilacs. Just as ‘Therese Bugnet,’ the earliest of roses to flower (with its Rugosa heritage) joins the scene, the lilacs are finished for the season. Lilacs, when pruned to a small tree shape, allow a variety of plants to grow happily at their feet. Herbaceous peonies, although their blooming period usually does not coincide with lilacs, make an ideal garden companion. In our yard, Paeonia lactiflora follow lilacs almost to the day in order of sequential blooming. The dense, full mounds of foliage of the herbaceous peonies visually fill the space left by the trunk of the lilacs, as do hosta. The foliage of hosta, planted on the shady side, makes a companionable partner. Hosta will appreciate the filtered sun and both plants benefit from an annual blanket of compost. Species daylilies, Montauk daisies, and chrysanthemums are ideal companions when planted on the sunnier side of lilacs.
Lonicera ‘John Clayton’
Spring never lasts long enough in New England, with some years leaping from bitter cold to balmy, summer-like temperatures. Despite freezing rain and late spring snow, lilacs bloom and bloom resplendently. For the extended period of time in which the spires of sweet florets are in bloom, our garden is redolent with their heavenly fragrance. The blossoms of Syringa vulgaris, and especially the fragrant sorts, are a nectar source for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The diminutive “violet afloat,” better known by its common name Spring Azure, is captivatingly beautiful floating about the pure white flowers of ‘Marie Legraye.’ Throughout the seasons our lilac hedge is alive with a chattering collection of songbirds. The height and the crooks of the branches are enticing to the innumerable songbirds, though it is the cadmium orange oriole alighting on the blue-hued spires of ‘President Grevy’ that causes the heart to skip a beat.
End Notes: Occasionally one must dig a bit deeper to find the value of a plant in relationship to pollinators for the landscape designed for people and wild creatures. First and foremost a garden should be an inviting habitat for the people who dwell there. What better way to create an invitation than with the beauty and fragrance of the lilac? Although not native to North America, lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are celebrated in this country as they are part of our cultural heritage. From cuttings tucked into belongings, the earliest settlers connected their previous home to their home of new beginnings. The ease in which lilacs are cultivated is famous and testifies to their success and popularity. At a lecture I attended not too long ago, an example of a white oak, which supports nearly one hundred species of Lepidoptera, was compared to the lilac, which is known to support just twenty-five. From a gardener’s perspective that is like comparing apples to oranges. Very few have space enough to grow an 80-foot-tall white oak, whereas a ten-foot-tall and easily cultivated lilac can find a place in nearly any garden. Besides, twenty-five species of Lepidoptera is not bad. Additionally, lilacs are a rich source of nectar for swallowtails. Our native eastern redbud—although stunning, and providing nectar for bees and hummingbirds—is much more challenging to cultivate and hosts two species of Lepidoptera. Plant what you like, as long as it is not invasive in your particular region. As much as possible, utilize native plants in your garden design and combine with well-investigated and well-behaved ornamentals.
For an expanded version on the history of lilacs, Lilacs the Genus Syringa written by Fr. John L. Fiala is highly recommended. Filled with hundreds of color photographs and including chapters on the culture of lilacs, hybridizing techniques, and propagation, I have turned to this book repeatedly. Fortunately it has been reprinted and is once again available through Timber Press.
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.