|Flowers and leaves of Syringa vulgaris|
It is a large deciduous shrub or multi-stemmed small tree, growing to 6–7 m (20–23 ft) high, producing secondary shoots ("suckers") from the base or roots, with stem diameters of up to 20 cm (8 in), which in the course of decades may produce a small clonal thicket. The bark is grey to grey-brown, smooth on young stems, longitudinally furrowed and flaking on older stems. The leaves are simple, 4–12 cm (2–5 in) and 3–8 cm broad, light green to glaucous, oval to cordate, with pinnate leaf venation, a mucronate apex and an entire margin. They are arranged in opposite pairs or occasionally in whorls of three. The flowers have a tubular base to the corolla 6–10 mm long with an open four-lobed apex 5–8 mm across, usually lilac to mauve, occasionally white. They are arranged in dense, terminal panicles 8–18 cm (3–7 in) long. The fruit is a dry, smooth brown capsule, 1–2 cm long, splitting in two to release the two winged seeds.
Lilacs — both Syringa vulgaris and S. × persica, the finer, smaller "Persian lilac", now considered a natural hybrid — were introduced into European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century, from Ottoman gardens, not through botanists exploring the Balkan habitats of S. vulgaris. The Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, is generally credited with supplying lilac slips to Carolus Clusius, about 1562. Well-connected botanists, like the great herbalist John Gerard, soon had the rarity in their gardens: Gerard notes that he had lilacs growing “in very great plenty” in 1597, but lilacs were not mentioned by Shakespeare, and John Loudon was of the opinion that the Persian lilac had been introduced into English gardens by John Tradescant the elder. Tradescant's Continental source for information on the lilac, and perhaps ultimately for the plants, was Pietro Andrea Mattioli, as one can tell from a unique copy of Tradescant's plant list in his Lambeth garden, an adjunct of his Musaeum Tradescantianum; it was printed, though probably not published, in 1634: it lists Lilac Matthioli. That Tradescant's "lilac of Mattioli's" was a white one is shown by Elias Ashmole's manuscript list, Trees found in Mrs Tredescants Ground when it came into my possession (1662): "Syringa alba".
In the American colonies lilacs were introduced in the eighteenth century. Peter Collinson, F.R.S., wrote to the Pennsylvania gardener and botanist John Bartram, proposing to send him some, and remarked that John Custis of Virginia had a fine "collection", which Ann Leighton interpreted as signifying common and Persian lilacs, in both purple and white, "the entire range of lilacs possible" at the time.
The lilac is a very popular ornamental plant in gardens and parks, because of its attractive, sweet-smelling flowers, which appear in early summer just before many of the roses and other summer flowers come into bloom.
Common lilac tends to flower profusely in alternate years, a habit that can be improved by deadheading the flower clusters after the color has faded and before seeds, few of which are fertile, form. At the same time twiggy growth on shoots that have flowered more than once or twice can be cut to a strong, outward-growing side shoot.
It is widely naturalised in western and northern Europe. In a sign of its complete naturalization in North America, it has been selected as the state flower of the state of New Hampshire, because it "is symbolic of that hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State". Additional hardiness, for Canadian gardens, was bred for in a series of S. vulgaris hybrids by Isabella Preston, who introduced many of the later-blooming varieties, whose later-developing flower-buds are better protected from late spring frosts; the Syringa x prestoniae hybrids range primarily in the pink and lavender shades.
Most garden plants of S. vulgaris are cultivars, the majority of which do not exceed 4–5 m (13–16 ft) tall. Between 1876 and 1927, the nurseryman Victor Lemoine of Nancy introduced over 153 named cultivars, many of which are considered classics and still in commerce today. Lemoine's "French lilacs" extended the limited color range to include deeper, more saturated hues, and they also introduced double-flowered "sports", with the stamens replaced by extra petals.
- 'Andenken an Ludwig Späth'
- 'Katherine Havemeyer'
- 'Madame Lemoine'
Syringa vulgaris 'Maréchal Foch'
- Rushforth, K. (1999). Trees of Britain and Europe. Collins ISBN 0-00-220013-9.
- Med-Checklist: Syringa vulgaris
- Flora Europaea: Syringa vulgaris
- Harrison, Lorraine (2012). RHS Latin for gardeners. United Kingdom: Mitchell Beazley. p. 224. ISBN 9781845337315.
- In second-growth woodlands of New England, a thicket of lilac may be the first indication of the cellar-hole of a vanished nineteenth-century timber-framed farmhouse.
- Blamey, M. & Grey-Wilson, C. (1989). Flora of Britain and Northern Europe. ISBN 0-340-40170-2
- The botanic homeland of S. vulgaris was identified in 1828, when naturalist Anton Rocher found truly wild specimens in Balkans .
- Their first appearance by name in English print the OED dated to 1625.
- Loudon, Arboretum (1838:49), noted in R.T. Gunther, Early British Botanists and their Gardens (Oxford: Frederick Hall) 1922:339.
- Written in the endpapers of his copy of John Parkinson's Paradisus, in the Bodleian Library; printed in Gunther 1922:346
- Ann Leighton, American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century (University of Massachusetts Press) 1986:445
- RHS A-Z encyclopedia of garden plants. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley. 2008. p. 1136. ISBN 1405332964.
- B. Ing, "An Introduction to British Powdery Mildews", in The Mycologist 5.1 (1990:24-27).
- New Hampshire Revised Statute Annotated (RSA) 3:5
- Chicago Botanic Garden
- Huxley, A., ed. (1992). New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. Macmillan ISBN 0-333-47494-5.
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