Spring has arrived when the air is permeated with intoxicating lilac fragrance. Poets and authors often include lilacs in garden descriptions and use the metaphor of lilacs to describe love. However, not even the likes of T.S. Elliot, Walt Whitman, nor Victor Hugo can truly describe the beauty of this garden favorite with words alone.
A visit to the Burn Family Lilac Collection, containing 500 lilacs, satisfies any desire to experience these fragrant plants, so beloved by authors and artists. Being surrounded by these beauties is an olfactory extravaganza that one is never likely to forget. During peak bloom time, from April to June, every lilac color, shape, size, leaf variation and fragrance is on display. This collection was especially designed to showcase the varieties of lilacs, as well as ones that flower at different times throughout the spring season.
Lilacs, mostly shrubs with some tree forms, are in the olive family (Oleaceae) and are originally native to parts of Europe and Asia. There are at least 20 species and hundreds of cultivars of lilacs all in the genus Syringa. Lilacs need at least 6 hours of sun to thrive. Flowers bloom on the previous year's growth and flower buds for the upcoming year develop in the fall before the shrub becomes dormant. Therefore, lilacs should be pruned right after they flower in late spring to allow for this bud growth. Pollinators, such as hummingbirds and butterflies, show up early in the garden season because they are attracted to lilac flower.
Hybridizers of lilacs, like Victor Lemoine who revolutionized the field by utilizing a scientific approach in the 1870's, intentionally cross-pollinate shrubs, trying to improve fragrance, flower shape, bloom time, fall foliage, climate tolerance and disease resistance. Original lilac colors were white and purple only, but now it is hard to name the hundreds of color variations of purple, pink, white, blue and even yellow. Two ground breaking, colored cultivars are S. vulgaris 'Sensation', which has purple flowers with white edges, and S. vulgaris 'Primrose', which has creamy, yellow flowers. Some lilac buds have different colors than their opened flowers, such as S. vulgaris 'Beauty of Moscow' (or 'Krasavitsa Moskvy'), with pink, pearl-like buds that open to white flowers. Fragrance ranges from sweet (S. vulgaris from southeastern Europe) to spicy and clove-like (S. pubescens native to Korea). Color and fragrance can even vary within one plant type depending upon the weather and soil pH. Sizes range from dwarf to as large as trees. A visitor to the NYBG lilac collection will quickly see that not all lilacs look like the common lilac (S. vulgaris), which has heart shaped leaves and large flowers. (For more information on lilacs and a list of selections for the garden, follow the link to our guide "Trouble-free Lilacs" in the right hand column.)
Lilac specimens have been a part of NYBG's history since its inception in the 1800's. A collection of hybrid lilacs created and donated by Theodore A. Havemeyer was showcased near the conservatory in 1912 in concentric arcs. Havemeyer, president of the Horticultural Society of New York and Chairman of the International Flower Show, brought some Victor Lemoine lilac cultivars to New York from France in 1910. He began improving on those lilacs and created 45 new cultivars in his lifetime, including one of the finest double purples S. vulgaris 'Katherine Havemeyer', the very dark purple S. vulgaris 'Mrs. W. E. Marshall', the upright shaped and deep purple flowered S. vulgaris 'Sarah Sands', and a large, magenta flowered S. vulgaris 'Glory'. He continued to contribute cultivars to NYBG until his death in 1936. Many of Havemeyer's cultivars were named posthumously by his friend Mark Eaton, creator of a now defunct lilac specialty nursery called Lilacland. Eaton's importance in making Havemeyer's best lilacs available to the public, and therefore preserving and promoting them, was recognized by the International Lilac Society with their Award of Merit in 1972.
The collection moved in 1920 to a place near Pelham Parkway that was perhaps a bit remote for visitors to enjoy easy access. It was Marian Cruger Coffin who proposed that the collection be moved to its current site at NYBG. Coffin, one of America's first women landscape architects and designer of NYBG's Beneson Conifer Collection, was asked to redesign the rose garden in 1947. In almost perfect timing, the Havemeyer Long Island estate, Cedar Hill, was sold and offered NYBG the chance to purchase 250 lilacs for one dollar each. Coffin's lilac garden design accentuated the lilac specimen form and color by framing them within the lawn and creating pathways that drew visitors to wander and appreciate the collection. 1n 1951, the lilac garden opened and was fittingly dedicated to Theodore A. Havemeyer.
Lilacs from other sources, such as the Rochester Park System and hybridizers John Dunbar, Alvan R. Grant and Richard A. Fenicchia, continued to be added. Unfortunately, the lilac collection gradually succumbed to many problems, including ones caused by heat, humidity and soil conditions, and the installation of irrigation in the area, leaving only 90 varieties by 2015.
A much needed renovation of the lilac collection was completed in 2016 to coincide with NYBG's 125th Anniversay thanks to a generous gift from the Burns family. Landscape architect Shauvan Towers added paths based on Coffin's original design. Also created was an outlook surrounded by masses of lilacs with breathtaking views of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and the Judy and Michael Steinhart Maple Collection. Deanna Curtis, NYBG's Curator of Woody Plants, preserved the remaining plants and enlarged the collection by adding 400 disease-resistant and heat-tolerant lilacs that thrive in the New York climate.
The Burns Family Lilac Collection of five hundred lilacs includes two hundred varieties arranged on either side of the main NYBG road. Non-cultivar specimens include the majestic Japanese tree lilac (S. reticulata) with its beautiful metallic toned bark, the dwarf Meyer lilac (S. meyeri), the graceful cutleaf lilac (S. x laciniata) and the Hungarian lilac (S. josikaea) with its arching branches. Lilac cultivars include S. vulgaris 'President Lincoln', hot pink S. vulgaris 'Bailbelle' ('Tinkerbelle') , cinnamon scented S. x hyacinthiflora 'Maiden's Blush' and the Jimi Hendrix tribute S. vulgaris 'Purple Haze' with pale lavendar flowers. Wine-red blooming S. vulgaris 'Congo' and wonderfully fragrant S. x chinensis 'Lilac Sunday' are large shrubs that can reach 12 feet and are useful as hedges. Pink S. vulgaris 'Prairie Petite' and S. vulgaris 'Tiny Dancer', dwarfs considered compact and not leggy, slowly grow to a diminutive four feet which is ideal for smaller gardens. Lilacs known for their fall foliage colors included in the collection are the ideal, abundant bloomer S. oblata ssp. dilatata 'Cheyenne', long blooming with rich violet flowers fading into a deep lilac color, the deep maroon flowered S. x hyacinthiflora 'Pocahontas', and dainty but robust dwarf Korean lilac S. meyeri 'Palibin'.
In mid-April, the first lilacs to flower are the hyacinthiflora lilacs, such as the white S. x hyacinthiflora 'Mount Baker' hybridized by Frank Skinner in Canada. Next to bloom are the popular and intensely fragrant French hybrids, including heirloom, double magenta S. vulgaris 'Monge'. Late blooming varieties include the tree lilacs and the strongly scented, light purple S. pubescens subsp. patula 'Miss Kim'. There are even repeat bloomers, S. BOOMERANG PURPLE ('Penda'), profuse pink-flowered S. 'Colby's Wishing Star' and lavender-pink S. 'Morjos 060F' (JOSÉE) that display their fragrant flowers in spring and bloom again from mid-summer into the frost.
Excellent signage throughout the collection gives detailed information on a wide range of lilac topics. "Color and Fragrance" enlightens us on many facts, including that it is difficult to manufacture the lilac scent. "Flower Form" describes the details of the inflorescence (cluster of flowers) of the lilac. "Advice for the Home Gardener" could help to determine where to plant your next lilac shrub. "A World of Lilacs" further details the differences between the common and the Asian lilac. In "New York Lilacs" one learns the special relationship between New York and lilacs. Innovative hybridizers are highlighted including New York lilac expert and writer Father John L. Fiala. Introductions of certain cultivars, such as the U.S. Flag series of one white, one red and one blue flowered shrub is provided on many signs. Lilacs have been scientifically studied since 1965 as a climate change indicator as explained on "Lilacs and Climate Study".
by Louise Edeiken