The older I get the more my scent memory sharpens for certain well- loved and oftsniffed fragrances.
Kerry Carman’s love of lilac
Jasmine, jonquil, daphne, lily, lilac, wintersweet and rose – all their scents are conjured up as soon as the memory arrives.
So even out of season I am surrounded by that delicious lilac aroma as I remember picking armfuls of the purple, lilac and white blossoms for the house. Is there anything more luxurious, I wonder, than an armful of lilac blossoms?
Syringa, the botanical name for lilac, was once used as the popular title of mockorange (Philadelphus), causing confusion for those reading old garden books.
Most modern lilac hybrids are descended from Syringa vulgaris, comprising a genus of deciduous shrubs with smooth, heart-shaped leaves and heavy trusses of four-petalled tubular flowers. These are always sweetly and distinctively fragrant, particularly after rain or heavy dew.
Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, is a refined plant that is not in the least vulgar or common.
It is mostly found lingering in old gardens but is largely passed over today in favour of its multicoloured and more compact cultivars.
These may be single as in creamy-lemon ‘Primrose‘ or ‘Sensation‘ with neatly stencilled white picotee edges to each rich purple blossom. ‘Condorcet‘ is a largeflowered blue I love too.
The many doubles include fluffy white ‘Madame Lemoine‘, lilac and purple ‘Katherine Havemeyer‘ and pale pink ‘Alice Eastwood‘.
The old Canadian or Preston lilacs, named for 1920s hybridist Isabella Preston of Ottawa, are also present in my garden.
They form another link with the Canadian ice skating star and flower lover who once gardened here. These puzzled me at first as they showed distinct differences from the usual types, both in their earlier blooming, and bronze and russet autumn foliage. The young leaves also have a plummy hue. Research eventually revealed them to be Canadian hybrids of the hyacinth lilac, Syringa x
hyacinthiflora and Syringa oblata, a native of China and Korea.
Lilacs, like peonies, are mostly cold climate plants that often grow but do not flower well in warmer areas. Regions that experience warm winters and high humidity can also have problems with fungal disorders.
Lilac lovers in hotter and humid areas can choose from several candidates.
These include the Persian Syringa x persica, Chinese Syringa reflexa and Syringa meyeri 'Palibiniana‘ (syn ‘Palibin‘). Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla thrives at Eastwoodhill in Gisborne. Syringa x josiflexa ‘Bellicent‘ has generous sprays of delicate pink but hates summer drought. Lilacs are generally fuss-free as long as you remove emerging privet suckers from the base. Lilacs used to be grafted onto privet stocks to make a stronger root system, but with time the privet tends to take over, weakening the lilac which then becomes prone to pests and disease. Lilacs are not over-fussy about soil yet reputedly do best on well-drained alkaline land. Loamy clay over gravel also seems to their liking. I give mine an occasional dressing of lime which suits them.
Once blooming is over, lilacs are not the most attractive subjects so they may be used as hat racks for small climbers. They can also make an attractive and serviceable hedge as well as the basis for a lilac and lemon colour scheme. I like to provide some sociable climbers such as yellow climbing nasturtiums along with sunny-hued miniature climbing roses. Purple herbaceous clematis such as ‘Annabelle‘ and urn-shaped ‘Roguchi’ may be encouraged up into their branches too. The lovely double clematis – she of the unfortunate name considering her beauty – ‘Belle of Woking‘, in delicate green and lilac, looks splendid in the arms of larger specimens, often blooming along with the lilac. Lavender-coloured wood hyacinths and primulas look good at their feet, followed by the wallflowers ‘Bowles Mauve‘ and golden ‘Joy‘. Little lilac and lemon violas, gold-splashed purple linarias and limnanthes, the self-seeding poached egg plant, complete a very satisfactory scheme.
Lilacs are exceedingly tough and – like camellias and rhododendrons – respond well to hard pruning into old wood. A hard winter prune of old, overgrown specimens will result in larger plumes of these evocative and oh-so-fragrant flowers. You can never have too much lilac luxury!
Many lilacs have beautiful double flowers.
Sensational with limnanthes.