A cool but sunny day greeted visitors to the Shelburne Museum’s opening day, Lilac Sunday. Four hundred lilacs in 90 varieties cover the grounds, and the air was sweet with the scent of lilacs in bloom. Unless you are a lilac aficiando, you may not realize that so many varieties exist. However, colors ranging from white to pink and violet, and varieties blooming from early to late spring are very telling. My favorite was ‘Pocahontas’, with very attractive dark-violet blooms. Jeff Young, curator of lilacs at the UVM Horticulture Farm, lead a tour that covered several areas of the grounds with lilac plantings. He discussed lilac cultivation history, what they need to grow and varieties of interest.
Although lilacs have been a staple in the American landscape for two-plus centuries, it is not native to North America. A few species, including the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), originally came from Eastern Europe, but the bulk of the species originated in Asia. Europe was introduced to lilacs via Turkey in the 16th century, and they arrived in North America in the 18th century. Common lilac hybrids created by French plant breeder Victor Lemoine have been coined “French Hybrids”, while hybridized Asian lilacs have become very popular including Syring patula ‘Miss Kim’, and Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’. Along with daylilies and vinca, lilacs were commonly planted around the houses of hardscrabble hill farms in Vermont. The remnants of those farms are easily identified in the forest by the cellar holes and plants that still grow there.
Lilacs are hardy and need a cold period in order to flower, making them a great plant to grow in Vermont. The question of whether or not to prune lilacs was answered by Jeff Young saying, it depends. To keep a hybrid lilac from reverting back to its common form, the dying blooms should be pruned or “dead headed” so that the plant will not create seeds. Seeds from all hybrid plants will not produce the same plant as the source, so dead heading will keep any hybrid seeds from germinating. Pruning lilacs should be done on wood that is at least three years old; lilac flowers bloom on older wood, and if the new growth is pruned every year, less blooming will occur. If too much is removed in the summer or fall, it will really reduce the amount of blooms for the following year.
Below is an excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem, “Where Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Although the entire poem is an elegy for Abraham Lincoln, this stanza is reminiscent of why we love lilacs so much.
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
I also included photos of a painted turtle, three stone grinding wheels and apple blossoms I observed on the museum grounds.