GREEN THOUGHTS: Lilacs: Beyond The Standard

WE THIRD GRADERS ALWAYS KNEW when Mrs. Bouton, the substitute, was in school: the smell of lilacs. A woman of great age, large stature and ample bosom, she liberally applied some form of lilac perfume before she faced the munchkins. Perhaps it gave her stamina. This spring, with its abundance of long-lasting lilacs, Mrs. Bouton seems to be hiding in every hedgerow.

The standard common lilacs have their faults, however. They’re large, wanting to grow 12 or more feet high, and working them into a small garden is like fitting an elephant into a Mini. Sometimes they take years to start flowering. Powdery mildew is often a late summer problem. Fortunately, other members of the lilac tribe offer answers.

Chief among my favorites of these alternative bloomers is the ‘Miss Kim’ Manchurian lilac, which opens during the second half of May. ‘Miss Kim’s’ buds are medium lilac purple, with the open flowers a much paler shade. Dozens and dozens of the conical flower clusters hold scores of the small blossoms, ensconcing the shrub in purple. Plant tags sometimes list it as growing only three feet high and wide, while mine is now seven feet high and five across. A key point to remember is that plants don’t read the tags. Powdery mildew is not a problem, and some years a good reddish-purple fall color develops. A new version, ‘Baby Kim,’ is more compact with a darker flower.

Lilac. Photo by David Chinery

An extremely fragrant lilac is Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin,’ cuttings of which are making me woozy as I write. Palibin is a slow grower, perhaps stopping at five feet, but it flowers well when still small. I hesitate to tell you mine is blooming its heart out in partial shade, lest you go and plant one in darkness and have a failure, but it is true. Lilacs usually demand full sun for optimal flower production, in this case mostly following what the tags suggest.

I would like to have a later flowering Preston lilac (Syringa x prestoniae), the first of which were developed by a woman named Isabella Preston in Ottawa in the 1920s. She named many of her hybrids after Shakespearian women, but in the nursery trade you are also likely to find such notables as ‘Donald Wyman’ (deepest pink), ‘Miss Canada’ (bright rose-pink), and ‘James MacFarlane’ (bright pink and vigorous), all trying to attract the attention of shoppers. Flowers are formed on new growth and open two weeks after the common lilac, which blooms on last season’s wood.

The last of the razzle-dazzling lilacs is Syringa reticulata subspecies reticulata. It’s also the largest of the genus, often reaching 20 feet or more, hence its common name, Japanese tree lilac. Very cold hardy and fairly pest free, it could be useful in many landscapes and has even been successfully pressed into service as a street tree (the toughest job known to plants) in Troy. Only white flowered types are available, and common cultivars include ‘Ivory Pillar,’ ‘Ivory Silk’ and ‘Snowdance.’ Only one problem: all smell more like a privet than a lilac. Perhaps they should take a lesson from Mrs. B.

To contact David Chinery, horticultural educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email

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