Intoxicated by lilacs

The scent of lilac in a shrubbery, wafting out over someone's fence as we walk by in May, is something of a period piece. All plants come and go in fashions and the genus Syringa had its golden age some time ago, reaching its peak when Ivor Novello revived a war-weary nation with his stirring tale of walking together down an English lane to gather lilacs in the spring again.

Until modern times, a big lilac bush was a fixture in every garden, filling the evening air of late spring and early summer with its memorable perfume. Syringa vulgaris and its many cultivars take up none of our valuable time, requiring no pruning and ignoring extremes of weather.

The choice of cultivars is vast, a tendency started by the great French breeder Victor Lemoine, who turned out hundreds of new kinds from his Nancy nursery from the 1870s onwards, a habit continued by later generations until the 1940s. When Lemoine, the first foreigner to be awarded the RHS’s coveted Victoria Medal of Honour, died in 1911, an appreciation in The Garden hailed ‘this transcendent genius’ as ‘the greatest plant breeder the world has ever seen’. We shall not see his like again.

Among Lemoine’s many established favourites, we should name at least the dark-purple double Charles Joly (1896), the most likely candidate for the one you pass regularly, and another universal double, carefully named by the great man after his chief assistant in the hybridisation process, Madame Lemoine, given the RHS Award of Merit in 1891. This latter is one of the many white-flowered forms, but is distinguished by the flowers being primrose-yellow in bud.

It was this lovely creature that first turned the head of Britain’s greatest lilac authority, Colin Chapman, at about the time the Light Programme sent Novello’s memorable song drifting across the back gardens of Britain. Mr Chapman’s family home in Hull had been bombed in the war and they were rehoused in the well-named Garden Village development. A lilac bush stood by the garden gate.

The young Mr Chapman, a man of feeling, bought a white counterpart, Madame Lemoine by name, to plant on the other side of the gate, to cheer his mother up. When it had grown to maturity, Mr Chapman came home one evening by moonlight and was stopped in his tracks by the visual and olfactory sensation of the white lilac by the gate. He’s never recovered from the experience.

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From this touching beginning, Mr Chapman has gone on to form a National Collection of lilacs at his home in Suffolk. Like many an enthusiast before him, he started out with strictly regulated intentions, but has inevitably ended up with a vast and diverse collection of everything you could possibly think of, laid out largely in a pattern that reflects the geographical origin of the various forms. That is a bigger project than you might suppose, as there are lilac cultivars from Russia to the USA.

Indeed, one of the desirable characteristics of the lilac is its invincible hardiness. There are Russian lilacs called, in translation, The Banner of Lenin and, interestingly, Paul Robeson (the latter tinged with red around the edges). These Russian forms are little known in this country, but Mr Chapman is their chief protagonist: his favourite is Nevesta, a white flower subtly tinged around the edges with pink, or, as Mr Chapman puts it, ‘beauty on a stick’.

All these variations have to be propagated by the traditional method of grafting onto privet, a close relative of lilac, as a quick look at any privet flower will confirm. This sometimes leads to the problem that the privet rootstock will send up suckers, so that, in time, your treasure becomes more privet than lilac, but Mr Chapman observes that lilac itself sends out runners that form their own roots, in turn suppressing the privet below ground, so all will be well.

There are many other species besides Syringa vulgaris and its hundreds of cultivars. A particular favourite of mine is S. velutina, just like its famous relative in form, foliage and flower, but much smaller, indeed perfectly formed for the modern garden. It retains its dainty form into maturity, so that it always looks like the thing that first caught your eye in the nursery.

Given the enormous popularity of the colour purple and its infinite gradations over recent years, I wonder that the lilac has not benefited. The genus Syringa and its innumerable cultivars supply the full range of variations on a combination of red, blue and white and there is something arresting in seeing a range of cultivars grouped together, with the mingled harmonising shades and hues forming, to my mind, a marvellously rich mixture from pale pinks through to sumptuous purples, all overlaid with that inimitable fragrance.

Like honeysuckle and mock orange, lilac is one of those lingering scents that makes us pause on the threshold and dwell on the beauty of an English early-summer evening. It has earned its place in the list of basic requirements for any garden. The only difficulty is the overwhelming choice. Better make a start.

The Chapmans’ lilacs at Wyverstone, Stowmarket, Suffolk, can be viewed in season by appointment (01449 781081)

Superior Syringa

* Lilacs grow happily on all soils, but especially those that are alkaline. They will not tolerate standing in wet for long periods.
* No pruning is necessary but, if things get out of hand, cut back to a joint immediately after flowering. Normal service will resume the following year.
* Lilacs are pleasantly free from significant pests and diseases.
* Some of the best cultivars are Syringa vulgaris Charles Joly, Katherine Havemeyer, Madame Lemoine and Mrs Edward Harding. A good choice for small spaces is the slow-growing and compact S. meyeri Palibin.

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