Words: Graham Rice
The classic May shrub; their season can be short but the colour and intense fragrance produced, more than compensates. And while it is these dramatic and intensely fragrant types, which first come to mind, in recent years smaller flowering selections with a longer season have become more popular.
The other great feature of lilacs is that they are easy to grow. Give them any reasonably fertile soil that’s not waterlogged plus plenty of sunshine and most lilacs are happy. Taller types can be restricted by thoughtful pruning after flowering.
Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Esther Staley’
Early flowering and often opening at the end of April, ‘Esther Staley’ has soft pink flowers opening from darker, almost red buds. Very fragrant, flowers are carried in pointed heads up to about 12.5cm (5in).
Plants make substantial specimens unlike S. vulgaris (one of the parents of Syringa x hyacinthiflora), ‘Esther Staley’ develops attractive burgundy red autumn colour. Height: 5m (15ft).
Syringa x josiflexa ‘Bellicent’
Often flowering in June, this rather upright shrub carries enormous plumes of flowers to up 23cm (9in) long, which are also more open and loose than those of many large lilacs. The dark green foliage is a fine background for the fragrant, slightly sugary, cinnamon-scented, soft rose-pink flowers whose colouring is especially clear.
A hybrid of two species; one from Transylvania and other from China. Raised in Ottawa, probably in the early 1940s.
Height: 4m (12ft).
Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’
Sometimes known as the 'little leaf lilac' (along with Syringa microphylla) for its small, unobtrusive glossy foliage. ‘Palibin’ makes a neat plant with a rounded shape which is small enough to fit into most gardens. In May and June the highly scented lavender-pink flowers open in dense heads about 10cm (4in) long.
Slow growing and naturally bushy and compact, ‘Palibin’ retains its shape with minimum pruning, and it suckers slowly. It is also resistant to powdery mildew. Height: 1.5m (5ft).
Syringa x prestoniae ‘Elinor’
Described by Vita Sackville-West as “a most beautiful shrub”, ‘Elinor’ makes a substantial specimen with large, dark foliage setting off the well packed spires of flowers. Extending the lilac season by opening at the end of May and on to the end of June, well-scented, pale, lavender flowers, darker on the outside, open from purple buds.
A hybrid between two Chinese species, developed in Ottawa and introduced in 1928. Can also be trained into a small tree.
Height: 4m (12ft).
Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’
A naturally bushy, twiggy, and rather upright plant with small neat foliage. Its fragrant, pale pink flowers bloom profusely in May, June, again in autumn and continue to open sporadically right through to Christmas. The dark pink buds are in perfect harmony with the pale pink flowers, all carried on heads about 7.5cm (3in) long. One of the best lilacs for small gardens; its leaves vary from almost round to pointed. Height: 1.5m (5ft).
Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’
Dating as far back as 1883, ‘Andenken an Ludwig Späth’ is particularly known for two features; unusually long flower spikes (often about 30cm (12in) long), and the fact that the wine red flowers do not fade in the sun. It is a vigorous plant with a spreading habit, although it can be managed by pruning after flowering. It is perhaps less fragrant than some similar lilacs. Height: 3m (10ft).
Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’
Awarded its first AGM in 1894, ‘Charles Joly’ remains exceptional. Dark reddish-purple, double flowers with paler undersides to the petals are complimented by a strong fragrance. Blooms are set against unusually dark green foliage, which have some resistance to mildew.
The plants tend to be rather erect in growth and often still in flower in June. Height: 5m (16ft).
Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’
An outstanding lilac for both flowers and fragrance. The individual blooms are double and unusually large, with colour maturing harmoniously from lavender purple to a paler, slightly bluish, more delicate pastel shade. The individual petals may be slightly twisted, seeming to increase the doubled effect. The flowers are densely packed into pyramidal heads with a scent that is perhaps the most intense of all.
The plants are rather open in growth, and more resistant to mildew than most. Height: 5m (16ft).
Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’
The classic, double white lilac dating from 1890. The buds are slightly creamy but open to clean, pure white and each flower is reminiscent of a hose-in-hose primrose, with one set of petals inside another. The flowers are heavily fragrant and carried on dense, upright heads on rather open, spreading plants.
Named after the wife of Victor Lemoine, the pioneering French breeder of lilacs and a wide range of other flowers. Height: 5m (16ft).
Syringa vulgaris ‘Mrs Edward Harding’
Arguably the best double-flowered, red lilac. Semi-double flowers are in fact more of a rich claret to purple colour, fading to a paler shade (almost soft pink) soon after opening. The result is pleasingly harmonious. The heads of flowers grow up to 25cm (10in) long; the plants are tall and rather open in growth.
Like ‘Charles Joly’ and ‘Katherine Havemeyer’, ‘Mrs Edward Harding’ was raised in France by Victor Lemoine. Height: 5m (16ft).