Lilac time

Lilacs are one of my favourite flowers. The wonderfully fragrant flowers borne at the ends of branches contrast perfectly with the glossy, dark-green heart-shaped leaves. While widely available lilacs are often considered rather old-fashioned – associated more with older gardens than modern, at least in Australia.

The first Australian floral festival in 1952 in Goulburn, New South Wales celebrated the lilac. In recent years Goulburn’s Lilac Time has struggled. The loss of the Lilac Queen who reigned over the festival might even be interpreted as regicide. During the hey-day of Lilac Time Goulburn Council encouraged residents to plant lilacs and there remains a fine collection in the city and surrounds. However, lilacs are rather dismissive of Lilac Time and even the Lilac Queen may not have had access to lilac blooms for the long weekend in October. The refusal of lilacs to deliver on cue might be one factor resulting in roses supplanting lilacs in Goulburn’s affections. However  the depredations of drought in Goulburn has also seen a decline in lilacs – some summer water is critical here, and, as with many rural centres, Goulburn has its share of economic challenges.

Janice Bryant Lilac Queen Goulburn Lilac Festiival 1961
The Lilac Queen – Janice Bryant  during Goulburn Lilac Festival 1961

In contrast lilac festivals in the US have flourished. The first was in 1908 in Highland Park, Rochester, New York and attracted over 25,000 visitors. The 2015 the festival attracted half a million people over ten days. As a botanist the 500 varieties represented in over 1200 lilacs and a picnic would suffice. However, to attract more than lilac afficionados the Rochester program, folded around the lilac collection, includes concerts, the Lilac Brew Fest, a Home & Garden Show, Art in the Park, food stalls and craft markets. Nevertheless, I’m pleased the lilac retains top billing.

"Syringa vulgaris (common Lilac) cultivar "Flower City", at Highland Park in Rochester, New York."
Syringa vulgaris cv. “Flower City” at Highland Park, Rochester, New York.”

The common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, is native to the Balkan Peninsula including Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.  The cultivated lilac’s origin is generally considered to have been in western Romania. This lilac made its way to European gardens from Ottoman gardens in Turkey with Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, the Austrian Ambassador to Constantinople (Istanbul). Ogier Ghislain introduced the lilac to Vienna in 1563, later moving to Paris where he died in 1592 bequeathing the marvelous legacy of Paris’s lilacs.

Early lilacs were indeed lilac in colour – the word derives from the Persian nīl, indigo or any blue, nīlak, light purplish-blueish and, līlak, the nīlak colour. Widespread cultivation saw selections of white-flowered and purple-flowered forms but of course, despite the extended colour range, the name lilac endures. While Syringa vulgaris is the best known lilac, the genus includes around 25 species.   The Persian lilac S. x persica, apparently a hybrid between Syringa laciniata and S. afghanica, and the Chinese lilac S x chinensis, a hybrid between S. vulgaris and S. persica represent the earliest lilac hybrids in cultivation. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the French nursery of Victor and Émile Lemoine was breeding many of the common lilac cultivars that still remain staples in nurseries and gardens today.

In recent times lilac breeding has focused on the search for smaller forms and remontants (- those flowering more than once in a season). The diminutive Meyer lilac, Syringa meyeri found by US Department of Agriculture plant hunter Frank Meyer in a Chinese garden in 1909 has provided a valuable starting point for breeders – growing to only 1.5 m and carrying lilac flowers. A compact form sold as ‘Palibin’ has slightly pinker flowers and is remontant in autumn. Such material provides the basis for modern hybrids such as Syringa ‘Josee’ – a pale pink flowered cultivar bred by Georges Morel and introduced by Minier Nursery of France in 1974. ‘Josee’ is a complex cross that comprises Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla x Syringa pubescens subsp. patula x Syringa meyeri subsp. meyeri). Syringa ‘Penda’ Bloomerang is a more recent release. To date these compact forms remain difficult to find in Australia although Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ and S. patula ‘Miss Kim’, the Korean lilac, are occasionally available. In stark contrast there are also excellent tree lilacs that grow to 8 m and bloom in summer. Japanese tree lilac (S. reticulata ssp. reticulata) has a cherry-like polished bark, and Peking tree lilac (S. reticulata ssp. pekinensis) a glossy exfoliating bark resembling that of the paperbark maple. The tree lilacs are also occasionally available in Australia.

Of course in our enthusiasm for the new sometimes we lose sight of the value of the old. The substantial loss of 300 lilac cultivars representing 50 years of lilac breeding by Maryam Sagitova and Tadeusz Dzevitsky after the Second World War in the Agricultural Research Station in Almaty, Kazakhstan is a quiet tragedy. The growth of Almaty as a major business and industrial centre has seen the development of the valuable land previously devoted to lilacs (and apples). As an Almaty group established to conserve these cultivars observes, ‘Look at the lilac and see how tender and fragile it is. We can break it and trample it. But we can also save and raise it. Conserving the lilac we conserve the future physical and cultural health of the nation.

Lilacs prefer a neutral to alkaline soil, need some chilling to flower successfully, some water in summer and don’t do well with high temperatures. Lilacs are clearly better for the Adelaide Hills than the Plains – but if apples grow well lilacs probably will too.

Stephen Forbes, Director, Botanic Gardens of South Australia


Originally published in The Adelaide Review (Issue 429, November 2015).


Syringa vulgaris (common Lilac) cultivar “Flower City”, at Highland Park in Rochester, New York.

By LtPowers (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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