There are more than 380 lilac plants of 176 different kinds in the Arboretum’s collection. These include 136 cultivars that have been selected for certain horticultural merits such as flower size and color. The remaining kinds represent various botanical taxa, the parents of many of today’s hybrids. Together they provide a season of color and scent that extends over five weeks each spring. Please join us for Lilac Sunday, an event celebrating one of North America’s premier lilac collections.
- Perhaps the best known lilac species is common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), represented by the hundreds of cultivars within this species. In the late 1800s the Lemoine nursery in France introduced many new cultivars to the world—the term “French Hybrids” is often still used in nurseries in reference to all common lilac cultivars. Common lilacs bear large, fragrant flower panicles composed of many small individual florets that have either a single or double form. Cultivars are classified by flower color. Many S. vulgariscultivars grow in the Arboretum’s collection, including:
- ‘Arch McKean’ – large, single, magenta florets.
- ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ (syn. ‘Beauty of Moscow’) – pink buds open to double, pale lavender-pink to white florets.
- ‘President Lincoln’ – single, medium blue (there are no pure blue lilacs, but cultivars in the “blue” color class do have a blue-lavender cast).
- ‘Miss Ellen Willmott’ – single, pure white.
- ‘Edmund Boissier’ – large, single, purple florets.
- The lilac species S. oblata subsp. dilatata is notable in two seasons. It is one of the earliest blooming lilacs in the spring (before common lilacs), bearing large clusters of pretty pale pinkish lavender florets. It shines again in autumn when its foliage develops bronze to purplish tints—one of few lilacs that show fall color. The cultivar ‘Cheyenne’ has especially nice fall foliage.
- Blooming after the common lilacs, the late lilacs extend the flower show for several more weeks. A number of closely related late-blooming lilac species including S. villosa, S. sweginzowii, S. komarowii (formerly S. reflexa), and S. josikae have been extensively hybridized by plant breeders; cultivars from these crosses are now designated as belonging to the Villosae Group. Look for Villosae Group cultivars including ‘Miss Canada’, ‘Donald Wyman’, and ‘James MacFarlane’ in the Arboretum’s lilac collection.
- Most lilacs have simple, unlobed leaves with a rounded, oval, or obovate shape, but within the lilac collection you may notice a couple of exceptions. Afghan lilac (S. protolaciniata) and its cultivar ‘Kabul’ have simple leaves that are laciniate (deeply lobed), though the degree of laciniation can vary from leaf to leaf. Even more unique is S. pinnatifolia, the only lilac species with compound leaves.
- Dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) is one of the smallest lilacs in the collection, growing only about 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. It is densely twiggy, fine textured, and has a neatly rounded habit. In mid to late spring dwarf Korean lilac is covered with a profusion of short flower panicles; the small florets are light lavender pink.
- Most lilacs grow as multi-stemmed shrubs, but several species grow as small trees with one or a few main trunks. Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) is a popular tree-form lilac, and a venerable 1876 specimen (accession 1111) of this species is the oldest lilac at the Arboretum. Japanese tree lilac blooms several weeks later than common lilacs and bears large terminal panicles of very small, creamy white flowers. It grows 20 to 30 feet tall and has attractive bark. Peking tree lilac (S. pekinensis) looks similar but has somewhat finer foliage and branching.
The lilac (Syringa spp.) collection is located about a fifteen-minute walk from the Arborway Gate, five minutes from the Forest Hills Gate, and fifteen minutes from the Bussey Street Gate. View the lilacs from Bussey Hill Road, or explore plants sited farther up Bussey Hill by walking on Beech Path or the grass path opposite the entrance to the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden. If driving, park along the Arborway or outside the Centre Street Gate.
The majority of the lilacs are planted along the edge of Bussey Hill Road, which has a mild incline and is fully paved and wheelchair accessible. Beech Path is composed of gravel and is not wheelchair accessible; it is also moderately steep and uneven. Portions of the lilac collection grow on the steep, grassy slopes of Bussey Hill.
A brochure about the lilac collection, including information on plant care and a list of the best cultivars for home gardens, is available in the Visitor Center. In May, look for self-guided tour signs in the landscape, or download a tour brochure [pdf] to bring when you visit.
How long should I explore?
In May, plan to spend from twenty to forty-five minutes strolling through the lilacs and enjoying their fragrant flowers.
Plan your vist to the Arboretum.
- Alexander, John H. 1997. Lilac Sunday. Arnoldia 57(1): 12-13. [pdf]
- Alexander, John H. 1996. Would a Lilac by Any Other Name Smell So Sweet?. Arnoldia 56(1): 25-28. [pdf]
- Alexander, John H. 1989. The Quest for the Perfect Lilac. Arnoldia 49(2): 2-7.[pdf]
- Alexander, John H. 1978. The Uncommon Lilacs -Something Old, Something New. Arnoldia 38(3): 65-81. [pdf]
- Wagenknecht, Burdette L. 1959. The Lilacs of New England. Arnoldia 19(5): 23-30. [pdf]
- Howard, Richard A. 1959. A Booklet on Lilacs from Russia. Arnoldia 19(6-7): 31-35. [pdf]
- Fordham, Alfred J. 1959. Propagation and care of Lilacs. Arnoldia 19(8): 36-45. [pdf]
- Wyman, Donald. 1949.Lilacs. Arnoldia 9(4):13-16. [pdf]
- Wyman, Donald. 1948. Syringa Prestoniae. Arnoldia 8(7):29-36. [pdf]
- Wyman, Donald. 1940. The Arboretum Lilacs in their Order of Bloom. Arnoldia 8(5):25-28. [pdf]
- Anderson, Edgar. 1935. A Visit to the Home of the Lilac. Bulletin of Popular Information, Series 4, 3(1):1-4. [pdf]
Search for related articles in Arnoldia, the magazine of the Arnold Arboretum.