Lilac Time…

Glyn Philpott, Lilacs, Gallery Oldham

The spring has caught up with my garden and the lilacs are beginning to bloom. The first I knew was as I opened the doors into the garden the other morning and caught the scent well before I could see the biggest bush which stands just out of sight on the corner of the house.

For some reason I always think of Lilac as an old-fashioned plant – with overtones of the perfume loved by little old ladies like my grandma – which flourish in overgrown vicarage gardens, rather romantic but also rather chocolate-boxy. I wonder if that’s anything to do with memories of paintings like this Tissot or poems and songs like Lilac Time?

The Bunch of Lilacs, c.1875 by James Tissot,  Photo © Christie’s

Come down to Kew in lilac time, in lilac time, in lilac time,

Come down to Kew in lilac-time (It isn’t far from London!)

And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland,

Come down to Kew in Lilac time (It isn’t far from London!)

from The Barrel Organ, by Alfred Noyes (1906) and turned into a song…[click on the link above to listen to it sung by Carmen Hill in 1923]

So…. the other day I did just that and went to Kew thinking  this would be a good opportunity to investigate the history of lilac, in our gardens and even as a cut flower, and  maybe even change my preconceptions…

It didn’t actually turn out to be such a good idea as I was told the lilac garden at Kew has   been grubbed up, although there are obviously individual specimen trees around the garden. So instead I thought I’d investigate Alfred Noyes to see if he had any lilac-related passions. That too drew a blank. But then I remembered there was a popular musical in the 20s called Lilac Time, perhaps that would yield an amusing anecdote or two?  Not really. The London stage version was an adaptation of an earlier German show based on the fictional love life of Franz Schubert [Don’t ask!] I suspect was just an excuse to use a compilation of Schubert’s music. The show had  songs with such wonderful [if bizarre] titles as “Maytime is Gaytime”,  and “Litzi and Fritzi and Mitzi Zell.”  It ran for about 2 years from 1922.

A completely unconnected film was made in 1928 starring Gary Cooper and Colleen Moore, about a young couple in love but thwarted by her father. A bunch of lilac proves the romantic turning point. It was a silent film but released with a musical accompaniment including the song ”Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time.

But generally all rather uninspiring stuff so I’m afraid we’ll have to stick mainly to the botanical history.

Lilac botanically is Syringa, from ‘syrinx’ the Greek work for ‘pipe’, because of its hollow stems [same root as ‘syringe’]. There are more than 20 species, all but two from eastern Asia. The one we most commonly  grow in our gardens – botanically Syringa vulgaris – is from the Balkans, although  it was not actually found growing wild there until as late as 1828.

Syringa vulgaris L. [as Syringa caeruleo flore] from Clusius’s , Rariorum plantarum historia, vol. 1: fasicle 1, p. 56, fig. 1 (1601)

Lilac is first mentioned in print by the French naturalist and explorer Pierre Belon who describes it in his  Observations of 1554, the story of  his incognito exploration of the Turkish empire.  Nor does lilac enter western european gardens until, along with hyacinths and tulips and many other things, it was sent or bought back by Ogier Ghislen de Busbecq, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul in the mid-16thc. Clusius, the imperial ‘botanist’ was the likely recipient and he was certainly growing lilac from around 1562. The Italian botanist Matthioli published the first illustration of lilac in 1565, but admitted he had not actually a live plant merely a painting of one.

“These trees grown not wild in England” wrote John Gerard in his great herbal of 1597  “but I have it in very great plenty” although as lilac doesn’t figure in Shakespeare perhaps it was still a botanical rarity. Gerard thought it was related to privet calling it “the Blew Pipe Tree”. Parkinson in his Paradisus in Sole of 1629 names it that as well but has  several other kinds including the cut-leafed version, or what he was later to call “the Persian lilac”. This actually comes from Kansu in western China and the mistake probably arose because it followed the same route westwards to Iran and then the west as the peach and the apricot amongst  other plants.

Syringa oblata from 
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, t. 7752-7811, vol. 127 [ser. 3, vol. 57]: t. 7806 (1901)

The common lilac’s ability to survive harsh winters and summer droughts with little care  obviously contributed to its widespread adoption and by the 18thc it had spread widely, escaping from the shrubbery and garden and becoming naturalised in many places in western Europe.

Until quite recently there was also a lot of popular confusion between lilac and the ‘mock orange’  – with many people  – including my grandparents – referring to Philadelphus as ‘syringa’.  If you want a detailed account of these discussions about lilac and its distribution and general botanic history then take a look at: Susan Delano McKelvey’s The Lilac, 1928 and/or John Fiala’s Lilacs: A Gardeners Encyclopedia, 2008.

Syringa reticulata  [as Syringa amurensis]
Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, t. 7512-7571, vol. 123 [ser. 3, vol. 53]: t. 7534 (1897)

Few of the Asian species of syringa  were known until the enforced opening of China for trade following the Opium Wars. European and American plant explorers then moved in and sent home thousands of plant species of all kinds including many syringas.  Robert Fortune found Syringa oblata growing in a garden in Shanghai in 1856.  Syringa amurensis was sent back by Maack  from the Amur river region in the far east of Siberia to St Petersburg in 1857. Seed of Syringa japonica was sent from Japan to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston in 1876, whilst  Syringa pekinsensis arrived in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1880.

Victor Lemoine from Revue Horticole

But the real history of lilac as more than  a basic ‘unimproved plant in our gardens begins in late 19thc France. A nurseryman from Nancy in Lorraine named Victor Lemoine,  in business from 1850,  was hybridizing across a wide range of plant families including potentilla, fuschia, spirea, hydrangea, begonia, weigela, and pelargonium. Many of his new plants quickly became  well-established garden favourites, amonsgt them the white Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ and  the pale pink peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’.

Some of the lilac collection at the botanic garden in Nancy, Lemoine’s hometown, from Lilacs the Journal of the International Lilac Society, 41 no.2 Fall 2012

The memorial to Victor Lemoine, in Nancy. Photo by Olga Aladina, from Lilacs 41 no.2 Fall 2012

During the Franco-Prussian war Nancy was occupied by the Germans in 1870  and, unable to escape, Lemoine turned his attention to working with a spindly double lilac that had been found as a sport – Syringa vulgaris ‘Azurea Plena’.


He crossed this with other forms of S. vulgaris and the early flowering and heavily scented Syringa oblata recently introduced by Robert Fortune.  It didn’t take him long to achieve success and in 1878, Lemoine  released the first double-floret hybrid between them calling it Hyacinthiflora plena.  The name ×hyacinthiflora  was then attached to to this group of hybrids in 1899.

The best known of all of these “Madame Lemoine” – a double flowered white – was named in honour of his wife who had done much of the demanding and intricate physical work of carrying out the cross pollination. It is still the best known double white lilac in cultivation.

Lemoine was the first foreigner to receive the Victorian Medal of Horticulture of the Royal Horticultural Society. His family, notably his son Emile (1863-1943) and grandson Henri (1897-1982),  continued the work and between them introduced 214 varieties of lilac in every shade, shape and form, and virtually all of them are still available.

Emile Levy, The First Lilac,                   Sheffield  Museums

Lilacs need a period of winter dormancy to trigger their flowering,  and this  has meant they have been of particular to Russian, American, and Canadian hybridizers, and there are now around 1700-1800 named cultivars of S. vulgaris and S.×hyacinthiflora.  If that’s hard to believe or you don’t believe there simply can’t be that much difference between cultivars, click on the link to see Joseph Dvorak’s drawings of lilacs which can be used for identification.  That means there are more varieties of lilac than any other flowering small tree, and they are surprisingly not the result of intense hybridisation between species, but mainly of careful cross-pollination selection and of sports from  Syringa vulgaris. The last update of the International Registry of Syringa runs to 496 pages!

Lilac patterned wallpaper by Duserre et Cie of  Lyon, 1799;4

There is another intersting sideline in the history of lilac in cultivation. Just before the French Revolution someone made the discovery that the plant responded well to forcing. This is because its flower buds for the following year form very quickly after the demise of the this years blooms.  Of course its not good for the plants as they are so weakened by the effert that it can takes 2 or 3 years to recover.

Surprisingly it was found that, no matter the colour of the flowers naturally, when forced most lilacs produced only white flowers.   At the time there seemed to be  no conclusive answer to why that happened. But the growers took advantage of the fact that it did!  The whiter the blooms the more they were valued, and so ” the white lilac” industry was born.

Scholderer, Otto; Lilac; The National Gallery, London;

It was claimed in Revue Horticole [the French equivalent of Gardeners Chronicle] in 1886 [p.458] that white lilac was available in Paris flower markets every month of the year except August,  and in 1890 [p.506] the technical skills were available to make it possible even in August, but the two principal growers chose not to do so, presumably because all Paris is on holiday that month anyway!

There were those who thought these out-of-season blooms were naturally early and came from the sunny South of France, whereas in fact they came from specially heated sheds in the southern Paris suburbs of Robinson and Vitry. Here lilac was grown outdoors commercially, for cut flowers as well as garden plants, but after flowering gardeners would go round selecting suitable ‘rods’ or straight shoots/suckers which were then pulled up and wrapped in bundles inside a shed, dormant, until the winter.

Selecting the lilac rods from the store
American Homes and Gardens, Dec 1907

When winter arrived the rods were lined out in narrow rows in rich soil inside the shed. The doors and windows were sealed and the heat turned on.

Planting out the twigs in the forcing house which once sealed will be kept at a constant 95 degrees

Within 3 weeks apparently lifeless sticks would, like Aaron’s Rod, be covered with leaves and opening buds. Most of these stripped off leaving just the uppermost to flower to perfection.

Removing surplus buds and foliageAmerican Homes and Gardens, Dec 1907

Once the flowers were harvested, the remainder of the plant was uprooted and fed into the furnace!  Meanwhile the cut flowers were kept cool, bundled up and boxed, and those not for the Paris markets went all over Europe by train.

Gathering the lilac in the hothouse, American Homes and Gardens, Dec 1907

Dyed lilacs from Syringa vulgaris .
Revue horticole, serié 4, (1852-1974)              drawing by Descamps-Sabouret

You can find a more detailed account of the process in this article in American Homes and Gardens.

One of the side effects of  having “white lilac” was that  there was then a demand for the few lilacs that did retain some colour when forced, and since most didn’t, this raised their price. So, it wasn’t long before there was the cheat’s answer:  adding dysteuff to the water – and like the modern carnation which comes in every colour of the rainbow and many more besides – so the late 19thc lilac could be had as salmon pink, orange or  azure on demand!

from The Garden 31st january 1880

Surprisingly  the fashion for forced “white lilac” didn’t seem to catch on in Britain for quite a while. William Robinson in his Guide to Paris gardens  of 1869 remarked that English visitors got quite a surprise when they saw “large bunches of it in every little flower shop” in January and noted that it was always associated with the early violet and the forced rose. But it wasn’t long before it did because he published several articles about it in The Garden.


Getting the flpowers ready for shipment
from Dec 1907


A Load of Lilac by Arthur Hopkins; Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre;

Lilac had a heyday in the Edwardian and inter-war period, which fits in with their being summoned up by Noyes and for romantic musical. Our database contains references to lilac in 34 gardens including  Ammerdown House, Dyke Nook, Steeple Manor  and Branklyn, all from this period. Lilacs did fall from favour in the 1960s and 1970s, after all  even the Lemoines couldn’t get lilac to die gracefully or to reflower, and once they’ve flowered you could call them boring.

They got a bad press too from TS Eliot in the opening of The Waste Land reminding us that “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land…”

But despite everything, there’s no denying that when they are  in bloom  little can touch lilac for scent or sumptuous flowers and make you want, in the words of Ivor Novello, to gather lilacs in the spring again!


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1 Response to Lilac Time…

  1. Pingback: A List of Edible Flowers (last edit: 7 DEC 21) | Ars Gratia Artis

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