Lilacs have been around for centuries, in mostly Asia and parts of Eastern Europe, and made their way to North America sometime around the mid-1600’s with early Dutch and French settlers.
Lilacs grow well in the colder climates of North America and thrived in the early Colonies. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrote of their lilacs in their garden journals. The first lilac shrub brought here from Europe was ‘syringa vulgaris’, the Common Lilac. This is the parent plant of thousands of varieties of lilac that exist today.
There are approximately twenty-one different species, two from Eastern Europe (Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia) and the rest from Asia (China, Korea, Afghanistan, Nepal, and western India). These species of lilacs were discovered in wild, mountainous areas, by many an eager botanist or plant hunter hoping to discover new plants.
Expeditions, beginning in the 1700’s and into the 20th century, yielded thousands of new plant species to the western world. Of the lilac species discovered, only one was not found in the wild, but as a cultivated garden shrub: Syringa meyeri var. meyeri from China.
By the late 1700’s, as lilacs were spreading west and north to Canada, and sold by nurseries in the New World, back in Europe, the German, Dutch and French nurserymen began taking interest in lilacs and grew new selections from seed. Variations in color, single or double flowers, floret size, etc. started appearing and new cultivars were named. Some of these open-pollinated selections are still outstanding today, such as “Lucie Baltet, 1888, Single Pink.”
During the nineteenth century, many new open-pollinated lilacs originated and were sold in gardening catalogs. It wasn’t until the onset of hybridization did we start seeing fantastic and unusual lilacs. Hybridizing was relatively unknown to most nurserymen and not practiced. However, In 1870, the first controlled cross of two lilacs took place.
Pierre Louis Victor Lemoine of Nancy, France, crossed Syringa oblata with s.v. ”Azurea Plena”, a small double-blue flowered lilac discovered in Belgium, in 1843. The result was the first early blooming hybrid (s. x hyacinthaflora) named “Hyacinthaflora Plena”. This was the beginning of outstanding lilacs to come.
Victor Lemoine was a horticultural genius, understanding plant genetics and hidden possibilities in their makeup. Lemoine Nursery et Fils produced 216 cultivars alone, mostly doubles -- some of the finest new lilacs available at the time. Lemoine’s patience and hard work paid off, leading the way for future hybridizers to create even better lilacs, many using his best “parent” plants in their crosses.
By the twentieth century, more and more lilacs were being hybridized, and superior open–pollinated seeds were selected and propagated, each one unique. Some of the best lilacs were now coming from Canada (Frank Skinner and Bill Cummings), Russia (Leonid Kolesnikov) and the United States (Father John Fiala, Ken Berdeen, and Walter Lammerts). These were only a few of the many hybridizers who introduced so many wonderful new lilacs. Unfortunately, many introductions are in private collections, are hard to obtain, or do not even exist anymore. However, there are still dozens to choose from today, with varieties to fit any garden.
For more information on lilacs, read the late Father John Fiala’s, “Lilacs, A Gardener’s Encyclopedia” (Timber Press), a fabulous book for those who love lilacs. This book will make you want more than a just a few for your garden!
Also consider becoming a member of the International Lilac Society. The dues are small and it will connect you to lilac lovers the world over. It’s also a good way to find that particular cultivar you’re looking for.