Best Lilacs for New England Gardens

Lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum

Best Lilacs for New England Gardens

Lilacs offer many opportunities to the garden designer. Plant a flowering hedge of the compact Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’, or, for a striking accent, choose a standard form. Place a bench in the fragrant shelter of ‘Miss Kim,’ or bring a touch of New England tradition to a modern landscape with the great French hybrids ‘Mme Lemoine’ or ‘President Grevy’. And remember that lilacs span a rainbow of colors, from rich reds, blues, and purples to romantic pinks, whites, mauve, and the delicate, creamy yellow of ‘Primrose’.

The Arnold Arboretum’s research and evaluation program includes an annual survey to determine the most successful lilacs for New England gardens. The best of the best lilacs, in our definition, should be highly fragrant, display many flowers at eye (and nose) level, resist mildew and leafroll necrosis, and produce new growth that does not obscure the flowers and enough suckers to replace old or injured stems. Ideally, the gardener should be able to find the perfect lilac in every flower color, for every season of bloom, in both single and double form.

The following lilacs reach peak bloom during New England’s traditional lilac time-the second through the fourth week of May. This list includes only cultivars of Syringa vulgaris and the early flowering S. x hyacinthiflora, which have the general appearance of the traditional or common lilac.

Syringa vulgaris and Syringa x hyacinthiflora Cultivars

Key: single flowered (S); double flowered (D); high degree of fragrance
(F); early blooming hybrid (E)

Violet Henri Robert (D), Mechta (S)
"Blue" President Lincoln (E, S), Wonderblue (a.k.a. Little Blue Boy) (S)
Purple Sarah Sands (S), Albert F. Holden (S)
"Pink" Katherine Havermeyer (E, D), Lucie Baltet (S), Mme. Antoine Buchner (D), Maiden’s Blush (F, S), Marie Frances (S)
"Yellow" Primrose (S)
Lilac Asessippi (E, F, S), Excel (E, F, S), Michel Buchner (D), Lilac Sunday (S)
White Krasavitsa Moskvy (D), Sister Justina (E, S)
Magenta Arch McKean (F, S), Paul Thirion (D), Ruhm von Horstenstein (S)

Special Recommendation

Syringa x chinensis ‘Lilac Sunday’
This new cultivar from the Arnold Arboretum was grown by our plant propagator Jack Alexander from seed supplied by the Beijing Botanical Garden. The pale purple flowers are fragrant, appearing in mid May, and offering an abundant display annually. Although the individual flowers are small, they are produced in panicles not only at the branch tips, like the common lilac, but also from the lateral buds. The plant has a graceful arching habit and is expected to attain a size similar to that of other cultivars of S. x chinensis, about 12 feet by 12 feet. Please visit the Arboretum during our annual Lilac Sunday festival to view this unique plant.

Ten Favorite Uncommon Lilacs

Though not necessarily rare or hard-to-find, the hybrids and selections of the species listed below have leaves, flowers, and fragrance that are quite different from the common lilacs. These plants offer adventurous gardeners the opportunity to break with tradition.

S. meyeri ‘Palibin’

S. pubescens subsp. microphylla ‘Superba’

S. pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’

S. pekinensis ‘Morton’ China Snow™

S. ‘Bailbelle’ Tinkerbelle™

S. (Villosae Group) ‘Miss Canada’

S. protolaciniata

S. pubescens

S. reticulata

S. villosa ‘Charles Hepburn’

Adapted from a brochure prepared by John H. Alexander III and Nan Blake Sinton, "Lilacs and the Arnold Arboretum," Winter 1990.