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Syringa vulgaris is known as lilac to its friends, of whom there are many. Latin names may be useful descriptors but they lack poetry, don't they? "Syringa", I learned in the course of preparing this review, is from the Latin meaning "pipe" or "reed" and was so called because the wood was used to make pipe stems. "Vulgaris", in plant parlance, would translate as "common", but it carries undertones of nasty and tasteless. The lilac is certainly neither of those things, but it is common, in the sense of widespread, in the UK. Judging by the number of "Avenue des Lilas" I have driven past in France it is common there too, and in a Donna Leon novel I read recently, set in Venice, the heady scent of lilac in spring was a recurring theme. Boston has a Lilac Sunday when it throws open its arboretum to picnickers to celebrate the lilac so it's happy across the water too.
But if syringa vulgaris is not very evocative, lilac immediately conjures up a colour and a scent. Lilac is a specific pale mauve shade, much beloved of old ladies, but lilac blossom ranges from white through cream, pale blue, lilac, mauve to deep purple. And the scent, while delicate and floral, is distinctive and all-pervading. Rupert Brooke liked it:
"Just now the lilac is in bloom
All before my little room"
a memory I can empathise with, as the scent of lilac takes me straight back to my childhood bedroom with the lilac outside. Proust and his madeleine, me and my lilac, same thing really. We just tell it differently.
The other great thing about lilac is its timing. It's part of that great late spring burgeoning, after the spring flowers are over, when overnight whole vistas become a profusion of green, white and yellow. T S Eliot couldn't help acknowledging the joy it brings, when all he wanted to be was miserable:
"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land"
The blooms form at about the same time as the "candles" on the horse chestnuts, and initially they look very similar sitting upright and tapering to a point. But then all the little tight flower buds on the lilac burst out to form a heavy blossom and the weight pulls the flowers down so they point outwards at a 45º angle. The tree looks like it's exploding. There they will stay, wafting their delicate scent over you, for several weeks. Lilac flower heads are often referred to as "panicles". My dictionary defines this is as a "compound raceme, as in the oat". None the wiser, I searched on-line dictionaries and came up with "a cluster of flowers in which flowers are borne on stalks that branch off larger stalks" and "type of inflorescence where the flowers bloom from the bottom up". In short, a cluster of small flowers which make a big flower head, and which open from the base first. Like a lupin.
A native of south east Europe, it is particularly suitable for small gardens, being a small tree or a large shrub, so you can have a bit of height without it being overwhelming. Ours is 10 - 12 feet high, and this is typical. They like a fairly rich soil (especially chalk) and a sunny spot. Just because it's a tree, though, doesn't mean you can stick it in the ground and leave it. No plant that isn't a weed can look after itself, unfortunately. Well, maybe mint, but that's practically a weed anyway. Here's your to-do list:
Early April: feed with bonemeal and cover with a mulch of compost
Early June: remove dead flower heads
Early August: remove suckers
Mid August: take cuttings if required
October: best time to plant a new lilac, and prune established trees
Garden advice books are never happy unless they've got you out there every waking minute, so I asked my gardener (a.k.a. my husband) what was really necessary and what was a counsel of perfection. He doesn't feed our tree (although we have reasonably rich soil), and prunes and removes suckers only when necessary (not every year). Removing dead heads is a must, though, and even then the tree will have the occasional rest year when the flowers are less profuse.
There are, inevitably, many varieties and shades of colour, including those with double flowers and two-tone colours. GM reigns in the flower world. Double flowers are defined as having 8 petals, single flowers have only 4 and so the bloom appears less profuse. All the lilacs we've had in our gardens have been inherited, so I don't know the varieties, but they have been double headed, single colour which I prefer. For white blooms "Madame Lemoine" is recommended as a double, "Maud Notcutt" as a single; for a true lilac colour "Katherine Havemayer" and "Albert Holden"; and for a deeper lilac verging on purple "Charles Joly" and "Congo".
Buying a lilac plant from a garden centre, about two feet high, will cost you about £25. Alternatively, the suckers transplant very well and if you know someone with a tree they should be happy to offload their suckers (there's joke skulking in there, but we'll let it lie).
For the flower arrangers amongst you, lilac flowers make a lovely display. I pass this on without any personal experience as on the rare occasions when I stick flowers in a vase that's what they look like - flowers stuck in a vase. Trim off the leaves and just use the flower heads, or panicles as you can call them to show off.
Are there any downsides to this plant? Well it might make you sneeze. Some hay fever sufferers find it sets them off so it might be as well to check before you plant. But hay fever being the individual ailment that it is, means that even if you do suffer, lilac may not be a cause. At this time of year oilseed rape has me wheezing and gasping but I can happily stick my nose in a lilac flower (sorry, panicle).
So, give or take a few sneezes, what's not to like? Lovely colour, beautiful scent, relatively easy to grow. I managed to bracket Rupert Brooke and T S Eliot within a few lines, a world first - only lilac can do this. Song-writers have also been inspired, think of the musical Lilac Time, and hum a few bars of "We'll gather lilacs in the spring again". They don't write about laburnum or forsythia, do they (though admittedly these are tricky to work into a lyric). You won't find a Shakespeare quote with lilac in it as it didn't reach these shores until the 16th century, but let's end with an unexpectedly lovely quote from Truman Capote: "The true beloveds of this world are in their lover's eyes lilacs opening". Isn't that nice?