The lilacs are in full glory right now…all of them, not just the late-blooming ones. (It seems the early ones didn’t get the memo!). Our ghastly cold and wet weather in Calgary is fully responsible, but I must admit, it’s rather cool to have the almonds and the crabapples and May day trees just finish up, only to be followed by the stellar display of the lilacs (oh and a few lagging honeysuckles that REALLY didn’t get the memo). It’s been one long, highly enjoyable bloomfest.
One of the most common questions I got from customers when I worked in a retail garden centre was, “Which lilacs don’t sucker?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a wholly satisfying answer. One of the ways lilacs propagate is via suckering, so it’s kind of inherent to their survival. I agree, though, it’s not a really desirable trait when you only want one lilac in your yard and you don’t want to keep getting after the suckers. (Hedging, on the other hand…lilacs make great hedges. A business just down the street from where I live has a huge rambling lilac hedge bordering the north side. This is about as far from a formal hedge as you can get, and it’s about ten feet tall. In this case, it’s intended as a privacy screen, and keeping it trimmed isn’t particularly high on the priority list. Right now it looks amazing, just a mass of jewel-like purple. Bear in mind that if you so choose, you can keep lilacs judiciously manicured – just make sure you prune immediately after flowering or you’ll sacrifice blooms for the following year). But…there are some lilacs that don’t sucker quite as much as others. Try the Preston hybrids (Syringa x prestoniae), first hybridized in Ottawa, Canada, in 1920. The Prestons are seriously tough lilacs, good to zone 2, but if you’re looking for highly fragrant and floriferous lilacs, they’re not the ones to grow. They have larger, but fewer flowers than other lilacs, and they aren’t as magnificently scented. The American hybrids (S. x hyacinthiflora) are also not as prone to suckering, and they have an added bonus in that they’re usually the very first to bloom in late spring.
There are about 25 species of lilacs, all native to Asia and southern Europe. Any “wild” ones we see here in North America are likely French hybrids that have “escaped” and naturalized. The common lilac, S. vulgaris, was introduced to western Europe in the 17th century and was subsequently extensively hybridized, with the finest ones originating out of France. The name “French hybrids” stuck and they’re probably the most popular lilacs you’ll find today, highly prized for their exquisite scent and colours. But lilacs come in an amazing range of sizes, as well, which makes them very versatile selections for landscaping. Small shrubs include the petite, slow-growing S. patula ‘Miss Kim,’ and the Dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’), which is actually not Korean at all, but Chinese (?). ‘Palibin’ is a true dwarf, however, and it looks great in flowerbeds or even rock gardens. And then there are the tall tree lilacs, which are becoming popular as boulevard plantings: a great recommendation is the Japanese tree lilac ‘Ivory Silk’ (S. reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’), which reaches a height of 30 feet and sports gorgeous creamy-white flowers late in the season. All of these cultivars will perform well in prairie gardens.
An interesting tidbit about lilacs – their genus name Syringa comes from the Greek word “syrinx,” which means “hollow stem.” It seems that ancient Greek physicians would use lilac stems to bleed their patients or to inject them with medicines. Can you even imagine? Makes our modern syringes look a little less threatening, now, doesn’t it?
Lois Hole’s Favorite Trees and Shrubs (1997: Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton)
*Title updated May 2018.