The older I get the more my scent mem­ory sharp­ens for cer­tain well- loved and oft­sniffed fra­grances.

NZ Gardener - - Contents -

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.

‘Es­ther Sta­ley’.

Sen­sa­tional with lim­nan­thes.


‘Madame Le­moine’.

‘Alice East­wood’.

Syringa vul­garis.

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