Lilac Flower has become one of the most popular of our garden shrubs. The emergence of its sweet-smelling blossom in May is a sure sign that summer is just around the corner. Many of the lilacs being grown these days are specially bred varieties that offer a range of flower colors, from white through pink or blue to deep violet. The original lilacs had pale pinkish violet flowers, the color now called lilac.
Lilac Flower belongs to that small group of plants that are so familiar in Britain that people mistakenly assume they are native. Most lilac species are native to Asia, with just a few species being found in Eastern Europe. All lilac species are members of the same genus, Syringa, which is itself a member of the olive family.
Like other members of this large family, such as privet, ash, and forsythia, lilac grows extremely well in the British Isles. One great advantage is that it is tolerant of both acidic and alkaline soils. Indeed, on a small scale, lilac has become naturalized in this country. The earliest species of lilac to be introduced in Britain and still the one most commonly grown here is the common lilac, “Syringa vulgaris.”
This species is native to Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. The word lilac comes from the Persian word for bluish lilac or nilak. The scientist John Tradescant, who subsequently rose to become King Charles I’s gardener, brought it to Britain in 1621 after it had first been seen in Western Europe in the 16th century.
In appearance, the common lilac flower is typical in many ways of most Syringa species. It is a shrub or occasionally a small tree, growing no higher than 8m. Usually, it has several stems growing from the base, although there may be just a single slim trunk. The bark is smooth and grey. The leaves are mid-green, smooth-surfaced, and have a characteristic heart shape. They are folded along the central vein so that, when seen in cross-section, they are shaped like a V. The leaves can grow to a length of 15cm.
The flowers emerge in May on pyramidal panicles about 15 to 20cm long. On common lilac, the flowers are, not surprisingly, lilac-colored, but on other species of lilac, they can vary from white to pink, mauve, blue, or deep purple. The panicles may also be much longer in other species, sometimes reaching a length of 45cm. The fruits come after the blossoms. These consist of flattened capsules that split, each releasing two winged seeds; they ripen in October.
Soon after the common lilac reached Britain, the first of many lilacs native solely to Asia was discovered. This was the Persian lilac, “Syringa laciniata”, named after the country in which western botanists first discovered it growing. In fact, it has been cultivated in both Persia and India for centuries. The Persian lilac is much smaller than the common lilac, rarely reaching more than 2cm in height. It is unusual among lilacs to have leaves that are lobed, rather like those of an oak. It produces violet-purple flowers in May.
The Persian and common lilacs were crossed several times in attempts to produce a superior lilac. The most notable success came in 1795, when Monsieur Varin, the Director of the Botanic Garden at Rouen in France, produced a hybrid that was named Rouen lilac, “Syringa x Chinensis.” This is a handsome shrub, still popular among gardeners. It grows to a height of 4.5cm and bears large, compound panicles of lilac-colored flowers in May. At this time of the year, the whole bush may be covered with flowers.
Moreover, during the 19th century, many more lilac flower species were discovered and brought back to Britain as botanists began to explore the Far East. The famous plant hunter Robert Fortune discovered Syringa oblate growing in a Shanghai garden in 1856. Unfortunately, it does not flower well in this country because its blossom appears early in the year. Usually in early spring, a warm period causes the flower buds to open, only for a sharp drop in temperature to kill them off shortly after.
Despite its frequent failure to flower well, S. oblate soon proved itself to be a useful source from which to breed hybrids and varieties. Many of the beautifully colored lilacs grown today are crosses between the common lilac and S. oblate. The French horticulturist Victor Lemoine and his son Emile completed a large portion of this work in Nancy in the 1870s.
Several of the far eastern species of lilac resemble small trees rather than shrubs. For example, Syringa pekinensis grows to a height of 6 meters and always has a single trunk. In June, its spreading branches are covered with a profusion of cream-colored flowers borne on small panicles 7 to 12 long. This species was discovered in northern China at the end of the last century.
Further, during the 19th century, one further species of European lilac was found to be placed alongside the common lilac. It was discovered in 1830, growing in Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe, by the Baroness of Josika. It is now known as the Hungarian lilac, “Syringa josikaea”. This lilac is not one of the most attractive but like Syringa oblate, it has proved to be a useful source for hybrids and varieties.
Dr. Isabella Preston cultivated many of the best current lilac blossoms from this species while she was employed in Ottawa, Canada, in the 1920s. One of the most popular of her hybrids is Bellicent, a large arching shrub with clear pink flowers trusses about 25cm. Which appears in May?
Traditionally, lilac used to play an important role in folk medicine; the flowers and bark were used to reduce fevers. Lilac flower must have been an unpleasant medicine since it has an extremely bitter taste. The wood from a lilac shrub has few commercial uses nowadays, though in Victorian times it was used for decorative inlay work. So, grow a lilac flower in you’re garden to beautify you’re home.