Plant of the Month - May 2012.

Syringa vulgaris (Common Lilac)

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In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-washed 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 dooryard,
With delicate-coloured blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloomed (Third Verse) by Walt Whitman 

Our plant of the month for May 2012 is Syringa vulgaris, otherwise known as the Common Lilac. It is a member of the Olive family (Oleaceae).

Common Lilac. "Published by W. Curtis St. George: Crescent Feb. 1. 1792". Published in Curtis Botanical Magazine. 
The name of this genus is from the same root as syringe, derived from the Greek word for “pipe.” This name was first given to the mock orange, of the genus Philadelphus from the Saxifrage family. Its stems were frequently used to make pipes of the musical, rather than smoking, variety. To add to the taxonomical confusion, the mock orange today in some parts of the world is known by the common name, “Syringa.”
Enough of this. The true Syringa is the Lilac. In case you’ve ever wondered which came first, the naming of the colour or of the plant, we can at least solve that mystery: the plant acquired the common name, lilac, because of its purple flowers. Lilac can be traced to the Sanskrit word for purple. The sweet scent is one of the most familiar in any garden. 

A lilac bush (Syringa vulgaris) showing a panicle with multiple flowers in bloom and leaves. Taken by John O'Neill, 2007. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

This shrub is 8-20 inches tall, and sends up multiple branching stems that form a vase-shaped crown. Stems at the base of this shrub are up to 8 inches across. The bark of large old stems is gray to gray-brown, somewhat rough-textured, slightly shredded, and sometimes shallowly furrowed. The bark of young stems is gray to brown and smooth, while new shoots are green and glabrous. Pairs of opposite leaves occur along the young stems and shoots.

Individual leaves are 2-5" long and 1½-3½" across. The upper leaf surface is yellowish green to dark green and hairless, while the lower surface is pale green and hairless.

Syringa vulgaris can be located in various beds in the Upper Wilderness, and is unmissable.

Brief History:
Both Syringa vulgaris and the finer, smaller "Persian Lilac" (now considered a natural hybrid) were introduced into European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century, from Ottoman gardens. The Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, is generally credited with supplying lilac slips to Carolus Clusius, about 1562.
Well-connected botanists, like the great herbalist John Gerard, soon had this rarity in their gardens: Gerard notes that he had lilacs growing “in very great plenty” in 1597, but John Loudon was of the opinion that the Persian lilac had been introduced into English gardens by John Tradescant the elder.
In the American colonies lilacs were introduced in the eighteenth century. Peter Collinson, F.R.S., wrote to the Pennsylvania gardener and botanist John Bartram, proposing to send him some, and remarked that John Custis of Virginia had a fine "collection", which Ann Leighton interpreted as signifying Common and Persian Lilacs, in both purple and white, "the entire range of lilacs possible" at the time.
Common lilac tends to flower profusely in alternate years, a habit that can be improved by deadheading the flower clusters after the colour has faded and before seeds, few of which are fertile, form. At the same time twiggy growth on shoots that have flowered more than once or twice can be cut to a strong, outward-growing side shoot.

Young lilacs tend to flower sparingly and variously until they are established. Lilacs enjoy full sunshine, an opportunity to spread its branches and still have plenty of air circulation, and a well-drained soil that is not acidic.
Lilacs appreciate an alkaline soil; and many sources recommend adding lime out to the drip line in the fall. Feed your lilac twice a year, once in late winter or very early spring, and again after bloom.
In late summer, lilacs can be attacked by powdery mildew, specifically Erysiphe syringae, one of the Erysiphaceae.
Pinch back your young lilac to establish its shape, and remove old blossoms as promptly as you can. Remember that next year’s flower buds form in pairs where the leaves join the stems; severe pruning will mean fewer blossoms in the following year. As with other flowering shrubs, pruning is best done right after flowering, to preserve as many of next year’s flowers as possible. If you need to completely renovate an older lilac, do the severe cutting back during the winter, while the plant is fully dormant. Suckers are often a problem, particularly if you’ve purchased a lilac that’s grafted onto root stock. They are tough plants and they will provide you with beauty most every spring for many years, in return for regular, routine care. 
Medicinal Action and Uses:

(Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens Trust cannot take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally).

Lilics were used as a vermifuge (a drug or other substance that causes worms or other parasites to be expelled from the intestines) in America, and as a tonic, an anti-periodic (a remedy used to prevent the recurrence of certain illnesses) and as a febrifuge (a drug that reduces fever). Lilacs may also be used as a substitute for aloes and in the treatment of malaria.

Superstitions and stuff...

A Old English superstition is that Lilacs are harbingers of death, doom, and / or misfortune, so therefore should not be brought indoors. The origin of this superstition is unknown, although there are plenty of websites our there willing to take a crack at an explanation, usually with contradictory results.

Fans of the Adam West / Burt Ward ‘Batman’ series will no doubt be disappointed to learn that there is no such variety as the man-eating lilac (as employed by super-villain ‘Louis the Lilac’) outside the magic of television. There is also no evidence that consuming ‘sweet and heady’ Lilac Wine (as in the James Shelton song covered by Elkie Brooks, Jeff Buckley, and others) will bring back any lost lovers whatsoever.

The Lilacs at the gardens are at their best right now, so drop in soon and visit them!
Thank you:

Creative Commons Licence
The photographs taken by Graham and Christopher High in this work are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. Another wonderful "Plant of the Month" post Graham!

    And I've also found out from your fascinating lilac account 2 possible reasons why the lilacs in our own garden don't do very well!

    The photos in this post and your next post on the Plant Fair show how lovely the Gardens are looking at the moment. Its wonderful to visit throughout the year and see how the flowers change as the seasons and months pass.

    1. Thanks Caroline. Of course the more rain that falls on a garden, the more lush and active it becomes, and the gardens are so colourful at the moment that it almost hurts. When you add the scent of numerous blossoms mixing together in the moist air, it is a heady combination!