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Fabulously fragrant lilacs

1st May 2019

Their heady perfume is one of the greatest joys of spring, wafting down the garden and reaching into nearby streets. Meanwhile, the prolific display of bushy flowerheads is a welcome sight, coming just as spring bulbs have gone over but before summer flowers are out. Lilacs (Syringa) are one of the best small trees for spring interest, also lending themselves to being grown as large shrubs.

They were first introduced from Eastern Europe in the 17th century and later became popular with florists as the blooms could be forced for winter bouquets. Beginning in the late 19th century, the French Lemoine nursery developed a selection of wonderful hybrids with flowers ranging in colour from white to deep red. These stemmed from a variety introduced by a Belgian nurseryman in 1843, Syringa vulgaris 'Azurea Plena', however the Lemoines did not keep particularly good records of their work, so many of the exact crosses they made remain a mystery.

Lilacs are easy to grow, just requiring sun or light shade and well-drained soil. Since they tolerate drought, they can survive in large containers, and they also grow well on chalk. They work well as a screen, growing relatively quickly and getting bushier with pruning. If left to their own devices, they tend to reach no more than five or six metres after 20 years.

Lilacs do have their weaknesses. The spent flowerheads don't look great, so if you can reach them it's best to cut them off. Pruning also helps to keep them compact and forces them to produce flowers lower down. Doing this every other year is fine. What's left is somewhat plain — lilacs are related to privet, and like privet, they are fairly non-descript once flowering is over. If you only have a small plot and not much room for other planting, you could try growing a not-too-vigorous summer flowering climber through your lilac.

A superstition has arisen that cut lilac brings bad luck, but they are truly lovely, if short-lived, in a vase. To lengthen their vase life, remove all leaves and sear the end of the stems in boiling water for 30 seconds before plunging them into cold water. Keep them somewhere cool and dark for a few hours before putting them on display.

Search for lilac to see which varieties we have in stock right now.

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