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Cornucopia - In Defence of the Lilac

In Defence of the Lilac
Sue Lander

Last October Bob Brown gave us an interesting, informative and humorous talk on his sixty years of gardening. Bob is known for his forthright opinions and loves to provoke a response from his audience which adds to the enjoyment of his talks! I love listening to him, I marvel at his range of plants and his knowledge and you always know you are in for a good afternoon’s entertainment when he is on the agenda.

This talk was no exception. How I agreed with him on the subject of Heuchera (pronounced “HOY-kher-uh” as we were told by Bob) and the many cultivars which just scrape through the winter and take all of the following year recovering! The best doer for me is 'Caramel' bred by Thiery (pronounced “Cherry”) Delabroye, the Frenchman who uses villosa parentage in his programme which produces far more robust plants. How I love the foliage. It has looked exceptional all through the last harsh winters and the soft colours are a lovely foil.

I’m not particularly fond of hebes and nor is Bob although the late Graham Hutchins of County Park Nurseries would beg to differ. The exception for me is Hebe 'Simon Delaux', raised by Delaux of Toulouse in France. It has dark purple stems and racemes of crimson flowers and I purchased it from East Ruston many years ago. Unfortunately it is slightly tender and it succumbed badly to a cold winter - I moved it and promptly lost it but would love to try again in a more sheltered spot.

However, the poor lilac! Bob has a hatred of it and has even launched a campaign against it! Whilst listening I mumbled that I liked mine and the hardy planter to the left of me stated how much she liked hers also. So I am standing up for the much maligned genus Syringa!

I inherited two lilacs (bad luck I hear Bob saying!) - fortunately for me they were of the deep purple flowering kind as I am not too fond of the muddy lavender forms. In spring they pump out the most wonderful scent – one forms an arch of branches linking itself to the corner of our bungalow. The second is situated just in front of a natural hedge of hawthorn, blackthorn etc. and close to a tall conifer – in other words a difficult and dry spot. The colour against a clear blue sky is fabulous too. Yes I know that the foliage and bark fade into the background but it is not an exception. A lot of other shrubs do too. A hardy planter will use their imagination to use the structure in many ways. For example, my lilac is host to a Clematis montana 'Fragrant Spring' which hangs through its upper storey with perfumed deep pink flowers providing a contrast to the purple. Once over, a climbing rose takes the baton, swiftly followed by a Lathyrus rotundifolius. Then Clematis x triternata 'Rubromarginata' scents the air in late summer. At ground level there are elwesii snowdrops, crocus, a few alliums, Ornithogalum and a couple of lilies (planted a long time ago in my inexperienced youth but they somehow stubbornly refuse to die!). Polypodium interjectum 'Cornubiense' links it all together – a marvellous little fern that takes dry and dark conditions in its stride and renews itself in autumn to look fresh all through the winter. A handful of colchicums push through, Cyclamen hederifolium start flowering and autumn crocus continue to provide colour. By now Cyclamen coum leaves start to push through and if you have been selective there are some wonderful leaf markings to be found. The flowers follow and provide colour all through the winter. Many things can and do thrive under a lilac and flower through it – it makes a good host. I very rarely have a problem with suckers, the old spent flowers can be deadheaded to smarten it up, pruning after flowering can either rejuvenate a lilac grown as a shrub by removing the oldest third of stems down to the base or grown as a small tree can be shaped. Winter pruning can be undertaken but some of the flowers will be sacrificed. Tolerant of pollution and good for bees, butterflies and moths.

If short of room there is Syringa meyeri (the Korean lilac). This is a shrub very tolerant of neglect and drought with sweetly perfumed lavender pink flowers. I once worked in a garden where there was a small sunbaked bed containing an old climbing rose riddled with blackspot where Nectaroscordum, Muscari and welsh poppy had colonised. This little lilac had been shoehorned in and every year it flowered profusely, put on new growth and was never watered. It makes a good container plant as well. 'Palibin' is widely available and has an AGM.

Colin Chapman of Stowmarket, Suffolk holds the National Collection of Syringa. He has more than 500 species, hybrids and cultivars and his collection is one of the most important in the country and in Europe. He is very interested in the Russian and North American lilacs. The Russian breeder Leonid Alekseevich Kolesnikov succeeded in cross fertilising sterile double lilacs. Syringa 'Krasavitsa Moskvy' (Beauty of Moscow) is a beautiful pearly triple white. There are even two variegated lilacs, single and double.

So love your lilac – the leaves are heartshaped, Elkie Brooks was hypnotised under it and you can even make wine from it.

First published in the Essex Group Newsletter January 2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: Sue Lander

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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