Lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm

    History of the Lilac    



History List of Species

Syringa vulgaris – The Common Lilac

Varieties of S. vulgaris

The First Double Florets

French Hybrid Lilacs

S. josikaea – Hungarian Lilac

Other Lilac Species

Isabella Preston and Canadian Lilacs

Literature





Syringa vulgaris floret
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Syringa vulgaris panicle
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Syringa vulgaris – The Common Lilac

The name "lilac" comes from the Persian word meaning bluish. The common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, has opposite leaves, described as heart-shaped to ovate. Its florets have four petals and grow in clusters called panicles (see illustrations on left).

This much-loved plant, a native of the European Balkan countries, has been admired for its beauty, fragrance and dependability for many years. It is thought that the lilac was admired in its native land and transplanted by shepherds to their homesteads. Plants were carried along the silk route to Istanbul, centre of the Ottoman Empire.

From there, in 1563, lilacs were taken by a visiting scholar-ambassador to the court of Austria. A few years later, the same man took lilacs to Paris. They were soon being passed from garden to garden throughout Europe. Early settlers brought lilacs in their baggage to North America. Happy with our climate, lilacs readily naturalized and by the mid-1600s were common throughout the colonies.

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S. vulgaris var. alba
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S. vulgaris var. purpurea
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S. vulgaris 'Princess Alexandra'
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Varieties of S. vulgaris

While the Balkan originals were in the colour range now called "lilac", varieties of a white and a deep purple, called S. vulgaris var. alba and var. purpurea, appeared in European gardens. We don't know their origins but they were described in 1770. Selections were made from particularly attractive seedlings formed by natural crosses of these varieties.

Sometime after 1800, commercial horticulturists began developing improved varieties. Selections include 'Alba Grandiflora' which was widely cultivated and marketed in France in 1831, and 'Marlyensis Pallida' whose origin is unknown but originated before 1864.

The earliest recorded selections in North America were by John Dougall in Windsor, Ontario, who marketed five cultivars in 1874. 'Princess Alexandra' is featured in one of two stamps issued in 2007 by Canada Post.

The same nursery in France that produced 'Alba Grandiflora' also sold 'Charles X'. This cultivar was used by Joseph Brahy-Ekenholm of Belgium as a seed parent for deliberate pollination with a white selection.

At the Farm we have three of the seven cultivars raised – 'Croix de Brahy', 'Ekenholm' and 'Princesse Camille de Rohan'.

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S. vulgaris
'Azurea Plena'
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S. ×hyacinthiflora 'Hyacinthiflora Plena'
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S. ×hyacinthiflora 'Vauban'
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The First Double Florets

Before 1843, only single lilac florets had been seen. In that year, a natural sport was discovered in Belgium which bore a second corolla, one inside the other, making it the first lilac with double florets. It became known as 'Azurea Plena'.

Victor Lemoine et fils nursery, Nancy, France, purchased one of these plants. It was used as a seed parent for deliberate pollination with selections of common lilac and a newly discovered early blooming species from China, S. oblata. Like S. vulgaris (and all lilacs in nature), S. oblata has single florets of four petals. The name oblata means "widened", for the broad, heart-shaped leaves. It is closely related to the common lilac, is also very fragrant, but blooms earlier by almost a week.

In 1878, Lemoine released the first double-floret hybrid of S. oblata and S. vulgaris, and called it 'Hyacinthiflora Plena'. Botanist Alfred Rehder applied the name S. ×hyacinthiflora to this group of hybrids in 1899. The "×" indicates its hybrid origin.

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S. vulgaris 'Président Grévy'
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S. vulgaris 'Toussaint-Louverture'
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French Hybrid Lilacs

The Lemoines (Victor, son Emile, and grandson Henri) originated 214 named cultivars from 1853 to 1953 – singles and doubles, mainly of crosses within S. vulgaris, in white and shades of violet, bluish, lilac, pinkish, magenta and purple. These became known as the French hybrid lilacs. At the Farm we have over 80 Lemoine cultivars, many of which were obtained directly from their nursery, starting in 1919. Some examples:

Over the years many other plant breeders in numerous countries have originated over 1,700 named cultivars of S. vulgaris and S. ×hyacinthiflora. They differ from each other not only in colour but also in the number and shape of petals and florets (as demonstrated by Dvorak's hand drawings of lilacs in Lilacia Park, Morton Arboretum, Ill).

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S. josikaea
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S. josikaea – Hungarian Lilac

While plant hybridizers were producing cultivars of S. vulgaris and S. ×hyacinthiflora, other lilac species were being described. In 1830, S. josikaea was named for Rosalia, Baroness von Josika, a botanist who had found this plant growing in Hungary and brought it to the attention of the scientific community. It is known as the Hungarian lilac.

As you can see, S. josikaea is quite different from the common lilac. Leaves are elliptic-oblong, florets are tiny, and the corolla tube is comparatively long. The fragrance we associate with the common lilac is lacking. It is in the Villosae series of Syringa, known as the late lilacs. They bloom about 10 days after the common lilac. The Farm has recommended it as a clipped hedge or windbreak.

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S. pubescens subsp. patula
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S. villosa
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Discovery of More Lilac Species

Starting in the mid 1700s, plant hunters explored Asia and found 19 species (as well as subspecies and varieties of some of these). Early discoveries include S. emodi, S. pekinensis, S. pubescens, S. villosa, S. oblata and S. reticulata subsp. amurensis. The latter two had been cultivated in China for centuries.

Most of the discoveries were after 1860. At that time, China was obliged to open up its interior for trading, after losing the "Opium Wars" with the European powers. European and American plant explorers moved in and sent home thousands of plant species of all kinds.

Seeds and cuttings of lilacs went mainly to St. Petersburg, Paris, Kew Gardens (UK), the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and the USA Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC. Notes and material were compared, and taxonomists began to make decisions regarding relationship and nomenclature (and continue to do so). (For more information we recommend Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia by John L. Fiala, revised and updated by Freek Vrugtman, Timber Press, 2008.)

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S. (Villosae Group) 'Diana'
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S. (Villosae Group) 'Elaine'
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S. (Villosae Group) 'Hecla'
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S. (Villosae Group) 'Miss Canada'
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Isabella Preston and Canadian Lilacs

Miss Preston started hybridizing lilacs in 1920 at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. Wild species from China, S. komarowii subsp. reflexa and S. villosa, both from the Villosae series of late-blooming lilacs, were selected and crossed to produce Canada-hardy hybrids. These were called, in her honour, S. ×prestoniae and put Canada on the lilac "map".

She also made crosses between S. josikaea and S. komarowii subsp. reflexa, and named the hybrids S. ×josiflexa and as well S. komarowii subsp. reflexa and S. sweginzowii, a cross previously done and named, in Germany, S. ×swegiflexa. These hybrid species are called nothospecies – the "×" indicates that they are hybrids between two species.

Eighty of Miss Preston's late-blooming cultivars are recorded in the International Lilac Register although only about one-half of these were distributed to other institutions or nurseries.

Dr. Frank Skinner, Roblin, Manitoba, started doing similar crosses two or three years after Miss Preston's start. As his plant of S. komarowii subsp. reflexa was not hardy in his area, he obtained pollen from the Arnold Arboretum for his cross and did produce seven cultivars of S. ×prestoniae.

Agriculture's Dr William Leslie at Morden Research Centre, Manitoba, tested and named eight of Miss Preston's hybrids. Dr William Cumming, at that centre, introduced two cultivars in 1967 and 1972, which were hybrids of hybrids within the Villosae series.

Miss Preston and Dr Skinner also introduced complex hybrids. It became impractical to give nothospecies (hybrid species) names to such crosses. The term "Villosae Group" was introduced to simplify the naming of cultivars formed by crosses within the Villosae series, e.g., S. (Villosae Group) 'Isabella'. To provide background information in some inventories we include the nothospecies name when available, e.g., S. (Villosae Group) 'Isabella'; S. ×prestoniae.

Villosae Group lilacs are featured in the Preston Heritage Collection found in the south end of the Ornamental Gardens. See Map of the Farm.

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Literature

  • Anstey, T.H. One Hundred Harvests: Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, 1886-1986. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, Horticulture Series No. 27, 1986.
  • Bennett, J. Lilacs for the Garden. Firefly Books 2002.
  • Buckley, A.R. Trees and Shrubs of the Dominion Arboretum. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, Publication 1697, 1980.
  • Buckley, A.R. "Lilacs at Ottawa." Lilacs 11(1), 1982.
  • Fiala, J.L. Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia - 2nd ed. / rev. and updated by F. Vrugtman,, Timber Press 2008.
  • Giguère, R. and Moro, F. Les Lilas. Les Éditions de l'Homme 2005.
  • Harding, A. Lilacs in my Garden. A Practical Handbook for Amateurs. The Macmillan Co. 1933.
  • Lack, H.W. "Lilac and Horse-chestnut: Discovery and Rediscovery." Curtis's Botanical Magazine, series 6, 17(2):109-141, 2000.
  • Lilacs. Quarterly Journal of the International Lilac Society.
  • McKelvey, S.D. The Lilac. A Monograph. The Macmillan Co. 1928.
  • Smith, H. and Bramley, M. Ottawa's Farm: a History of the Central Experimental Farm. General Store Publishing House 1996.
  • von Baeyer, E. "The Horticultural Odyssey of Isabella Preston." Canadian Horticultural History/Histoire de l'horticulture au Canada 1(3):125-175, 1987.
  • Vrugtman, F. and Royal Botanical Gardens. International Register and Checklist of Cultivar Names in the Genus Syringa L. (Oleaceae). ("Work-in-Progress" document). Contribution No. 91, Royal Botanical Gardens. Update of 27 January, 2014.

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Building 72, Arboretum, Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0C6
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