Monday 16 December 2019

Gardening with Diarmuid Gavin - how lilac is the time traveller

One whiff of blossoming beauty lilac will transport you back to simpler times

Lilac bushes in full bloom.
Lilac bushes in full bloom.

Diarmuid Gavin

I've spent the past month in London, for the Chelsea Flower Show, enjoying all that this great city has to offer to garden lovers. It's a city that's full of parks; ones that welcome the public, and private squares framed by elegant wrought iron railings.

London is at its best, garden-wise, in spring. Plants that appear to be no more than green mounds for much of the year suddenly burst from winter twigginess into full flower.

In the UK and Ireland, we have the great benefit of enjoying a temperate climate but our native species don't produce an awful lot of colour. The lack of extremes of hot or cold, wet or dry means that plants which have originated in most parts of the world will grow here. And for hundreds of years plant hunters have travelled to bring trees, shrubs, bulbs, herbaceous perennials and grasses back to these islands.

Many of them put on great displays early in the year. Plants such as potentilla, spiraea, wisteria and ceanothus may look dull for many months but nothing beats their colourful exuberance now.

For me the very epitome of a late spring early/summer flowering shrub is the humble lilac. It's the very ordinary turned extraordinary, one of those plants (think rhubarb and sweet pea also) that transport people back to their childhood. Maybe granny or granddad used to grow them?

This is part of the appeal of lilac - it represents a nostalgic return to simpler times. Scent is known to be a powerful trigger for the memory and one whiff of a lilac in full bloom can bring you right back to the May days of your youth.

And they have been around for a long time. Native to the Balkans, they were introduced here around the end of the 16th century but it was French nurseryman Victor Lemoine in the late 19th century who developed the cultivars that became so popular in the Victorian and Edwardian periods and remain classics today.

For fragrance, they are hard to beat and although their flowering period is only for a few short weeks, they provide a valuable bridge from now to the beginning of the rose flowering season. For the rest of the year, it is true that they don't do much of interest and are best planted amongst other shrubs that will start to blossom in succession or you could plant a scrambling clematis or rose through it.

It's a low maintenance, very hardy shrub that's pretty easy to grow. It does like sunshine and its ideal soil is well drained and slightly alkaline but it will cope with most garden soils and is particularly good on chalky soils. Once the flowers start to fade, they should be removed, not only to improve the appearance of the plant but also to conserve energy that would otherwise go into seed production. If you have an old shrub that's not performing great, you can do some gradual renovation pruning, removing one third of old branches, and the same again next year.

So what are the best cultivars? Madame Lemoine, named after the aforementioned distinguished nurseryman's wife, is the classic double white making a very elegant statement. I love Beauty of Moscow as well - it has pink buds that open to white, giving it a delicious candyfloss appearance.

Charles Joly has your more traditional dark purple flower and Katherine Havemeyer, a lavender purple flower. And don't be put off by their size - while most lilacs grow to around 12 feet, there are dwarf varieties for the smaller garden such as Palibin which is a lilac pink one which grows to about five feet, or Red Dixie which has red buds opening to pink. If a friend or neighbour has a lilac specimen you really like, now is the time to take softwood cuttings and pot up.

Where can you go and see them? As the English poet Alfred Noyes urged, "Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time". The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin has a good collection and if you're in London as I am this week, try The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew which has the definitive grouping to admire.

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