Plants - Trees and Shrubs

Natural beauty: May's evocative lilacs

Stephen Westcott-Gratton
Photography by
Andreas Trauttmansdorff

Prepare for the heady scent and lavish blooms of this spring garden staple


From left to right:

Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Florent Stepman’
Producing up to 25-centimetre-long panicles of pure white flowers, ‘Madame Florent Stepman’ is one of the easiest lilacs to cut and force indoors for fragrant winter bouquets.

S. v. ‘Primrose’
The only yellow-flowered lilac was also discovered by Dirk Eveleens Maarse while forcing the white S. v. ‘Marie Legraye’ (introduced in 1879, and incidentally, Gertrude Jekyll’s favourite lilac) for Christmas. The colour is subtle and is seen to best advantage when grown beside a pure white or pale blue lilac. Introduced in 1949 and hardy to Zone 3.

Keep the yellow theme going after ‘Primrose’ has finished flowering; underplant it with yellow columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), yellow tree peonies (Paeonia ×lemoinei ‘Alice Harding’) and ‘Pot of Gold’ Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii.

S. v. ‘Azurea Plena’
Providing half of the genetic information for the ×hyacinthaflora lilacs, the double-flowered ‘Azurea Plena’ was used as the female parent in both the old Victor Lemoine strains and in Frank Skinner’s prairie-hardy cultivars.

S. ×hyacinthaflora ‘Mary Gardner’
A gorgeous, fragrant lilac for the vase. Har­vest when just half of the florets are open; use a diagonal cut at the base of the stem and make a couple of two-centimetre slits in the bottom before arranging flowers.

S. v. ‘Gortenziya’
A beautiful true lavender-lilac colour, ‘Gortenziya’ is another Kolesnikov creation. Introduced in 1930 and remarkable for its intense, fresh fragrance.

S. v. ‘Sensation’
One of the most photographed of all lilacs, ‘Sensation’ inspired Father John Fiala (1924-1990), author of the encyclo­paedic Lilacs: The Genus Syringa, to write “Mon ami, you must have it for your garden!”

S. v. ‘Congo’ 
Beginning in 1870 at his nursery in Nancy, France, Victor Lemoine (1823-1911) and his descendants introduced more than 200 lilac cultivars (including the first hyacinthaflora types), most of which are still available today—which is why so many common lilac cultivars are called “French hybrids” regardless of their origin. Hardy to Zone 3; introduced in 1896.

A Lemoine heirloom variety that grows up to 4.5 metres tall, ‘Congo’s’ tight burgundy buds burst open to reveal lilac-purple flowers that slowly fade to a shade of dusty, pale magenta.

S. v. ‘Znamya Lenina’
Apart from the Main Botan­ical Garden at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, the RBG houses the single largest collection of Russian lilacs in the world.


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