The little girls next door are world experts in “pink”- it is their favourite colour and it is not unusual to see them dressed in pink from head to toe, riding pink bikes. I tease them, telling them I hate pink things. I have not told them that pinks, Dianthus species and hybrids, are in fact among my favourite plants. I cannot tell them now, or all my complaints about their colour will be ruined!
It has made me think about some other plants that have given their names to colours, in particular the lilacs and lavenders that are now in flower.
Of the two, lavenders are by far the more popular, but at one time lilacs were among the most planted of shrubs. I guess their deciduous nature is now counting against them, as most modern gardeners are intent on creating gardens composed entirely of evergreens, but they are fabulous spring flowering plants.
Botanically the 20 or so species of lilac glory in the name Syringa – brings unfortunate word associations with visits to the doctor does it not? – although in old books you might see that name attributed to mock oranges, Philadelphus. If you hunt around you can probably find a few of the less common species, but in the garden centres you are most likely to come across forms of the common lilac, S. vulgaris.
I was staggered to see that there are about 1500 different hybrids and varieties available worldwide. There is certainly nothing like that number around New Zealand – you would probably be lucky to find twenty or so varieties in most nurseries. These are mainly older hybrids, and funnily enough, not very many of them are actually lilac coloured. Perhaps the best of those that are actually ‘lilac’, is’ Madam F Morel’, a single flowered, fragrant pinkish-lilac. ‘Alice Eastwood’ is a double flowered form with similar colouring, although it has a more spreading habit of growth.
I am not sure which “non-lilac” variety is my favourite. I like ‘Charles Joly’, another older form but in this case with very deep reddish purple flowers, but I also like ‘Mme Lemoine’, a lovely white flowered form which seems to have lighter green foliage than most hybrids.
One of the most interesting forms is ‘Sensation’, which has rich purple single flowers with each petal edged with white and carried in large semi-open panicles produced freely on a medium to tall shrub. This one is well worth seeking out.
If you are looking for something with a finer, lighter feel than the old lilac varieties you should keep an eye out for Syringa 'Bellicent’, an upright deciduous shrub which bears fragrant pink in panicles in late spring and early summer. These are carried over dark green foliage often with light variegations. It is hardy and well suited to a shrub border or as a specimen.
Lilacs are not too fussy as to their growing conditions. They certainly prefer a well-drained soil and a position in the sun or light shade. It is best if the soil is neutral to a slightly limey as lilacs grow very poorly in acid soils and heavy clay. For good flower production a moist soil, full of well-rotted compost or farmyard manure is recommended. In recent years New Zealand has discovered an export market for these flowers, and numbers of growers are slowly increasing.