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Of Lilacs and Lily of the Valley


As spring matures and May arrives, gentle breezes are laden with the fragrance of Lilacs and Lily of the Valley. I love these and can drift back to childhood days in either of my grandmothers’ gardens when I could smell their wonderful fragrances. Back then, I think that most everyone had hedges of lilacs, often started from ‘slips’ from friends or neighbor’s yards in years gone by. As for Lily of the Valley, they were allowed to race and run under trees and shrubs in many gardens. I still just give them free reign among the shade loving shrubs in boarders all over my gardens. They push right up through the leaves and never need any care whatsoever.

Garden Tip: It doesn’t hurt to give them a handful of granular 10-10-10 each spring.

What other ground cover is so tough, smells so good and multiplies so quickly? Lily of the Valley will grow anywhere and spreads like spilled milk in sun or shade. They are very hardy perennials and return for years and years to bloom early in May. I love to tuck them into spring prom and wedding bouquets when they are in bloom. They are one of the old fashioned tussie mussie blooms for May.

The Victorians loved fragrant plants. Many Lilacs and lilies have always graced the old gardens in Cape May County . This year the Lilacs began blooming quite early. Anyone can grow a Lilac as it is usually easy to grow and will grow in sun or part shade. Many of the Lilacs in my garden are in semi shade and do well until the shade gets too dense as large trees grow. I have lost a few that just weakened after many years in areas that became shadier and shadier. They are usually full of blooms, but the shrubs in full sun are sturdier and often have many more large heavy booms.

When adding Lilacs to the landscape, there are many considerations. You have an option with size, color, bloom time, and often fragrance. Whenever I look at the bright green of the unfurling leaves of the Lilac and the tight little grape like clusters of tiny buds, I anticipate the joy of the blooms and scent. We pick and pick them, filling vases all over the house. I always wish they bloomed for a longer time and look for the last bushes to bloom as well as the first. Thus, the reasoning for several kinds of Lilacs in the landscape.

The smallest of Lilacs are the Syringa meyeri and many other dwarf Lilacs. They bloom early in May for about 2 weeks. These plants are usually only 3-4 feet tall, but covered with flowers. Although it is fragrant, the scent is a little different from the common Lilac. This plant is also quite hardy and disease resistant. The much larger common Lilac or Syringa vulgaris is an upright shrub, often growing 8-15 feet high, with extremely fragrant flowers. These old fashion favorites are at home in a border or as a centerpiece in a lawn or garden. There are about 800 different clones or cultivars, with colors ranging from white and pink to many shades of blue, violet, lilac, purple and magenta. At least one Lilac is a must in every garden.

Lily of the Valley

Still another type of Lilac is the Japanese Tree Lilac or Syringa reticulata. This tall, 20-30 feet high plant has beautiful white flowers in early to mid-June. It has a fragrance, but it is more like privet then that of the Lilac. It is a trouble-free lilac and excellent specimen tree, according to Michael Dirr in his Manual Of Woody Landscape Plants. Another Lilac is the Syringa persica or Persian Lilac. This graceful shrub is upright with pale, somewhat delicate pale lilac flowers. These mid-May bloomers are also fragrant and among the oldest of cultivated shrubs. Still another is the Syringa villosa, a later Lilac. Tall with rosy lilac to white flowers, this one looks more like a Butterfly Bush bloom than Lilac and smells again like a privet. Late May to June blooms extend the season of color for lilac collectors. James MacFarlane is one of the most common and easiest to find of these late Lilacs.

I used to be confused about all the kinds of Lilacs, but soon found that the Michael Dirr’s Manual Of Woody Landscape Plants had the most information and explanations about the different kinds of Lilacs. Dirr tells much of what there is to know about these old-time favorites. Most colleges and horticulture schools require this book for their students and rightfully so. Dirr not only tells all about the plants, but he tells how and where to grow them! I love to read his descriptions, as well as cultural instructions. He sums up Lilac culture by saying that the best soil is one that is close to neural and supplemented with peat or leaf mold. I have also heard many old timers say that wood ashes dumped on the Lilac all winter make them bloom in spring. A good fertilizer that is lower in nitrogen also promotes good blooms. It is the middle number of phosphates that helps promote blooms. Shrubs with lush leaves and few blooms usually have too much nitrogen from lawn fertilizer. A cup or so of lime sweetens the soil in my sandy, oak environment, which is also helpful for healthy Lilacs.

Remember that trimming or picking the blooming Lilacs encourages better-shaped plants with an abundance of bloom the next season. Although an excuse is not needed to pick these fragrant beautiful blooms, this is a good reason to pick and enjoy them in your house. Remember, with all blooming shrubs, prune as the old blooms fade.

The next event at Triple Oaks, 2359 Delsea Drive,  Franklinville New Jersey is the 35th Annual Herb Weekend. Free lecture and demonstrations all day May 22 and 23. Look at web site for detailed schedule of times and events.

lorraine-kieferLorraine Kiefer has gardened all of her life. She is a garden writer, floral designer and professional horticulturist. Lorraine teaches many classes at Triple Oaks nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, NJ. Email for garden help or leave your questions below!