Plants of History Plants for Tomorrow

Lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum

Plants of History—Plants for Tomorrow

When you plant a lilac in your garden you are choosing a shrub that is part of this country’s history. In 1767, for example, Thomas Jefferson recorded his method of planting lilacs in his garden book, and on March 3, 1785, George Washington noted that he had transplanted existing lilacs in his garden. The oldest living lilacs in North America may be those at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, N.H., believed to have been planted around 1750.

Although lilacs are part of New England’s heritage, they, like most of our citizens, are not native here. Of the 20-plus species of lilacs, two derive from Europe and the others are from Asia. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) originated in eastern Europe. This species and hybrids of it were so frequently grown and selected by French nurserymen that France became synonymous with fine lilacs; we know them today as “French hybrids.” The term now commonly includes lilacs of that type even though they may not have been bred in France.

Most lilac species hail from Asia, including two of the most popular choices for the contemporary landscape, Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ and S. meyeri ‘Palibin.’ The compact, later flowering ‘Miss Kim’ is noted for its intense fragrance; the neat growth habit of ‘Palibin’ fits well in the modern garden.

Known as plants for colder climates, lilacs need a period of cold-initiated dormancy to trigger flowering. Lilacs have drawn the attention of Russian, American, and Canadian hybridizers, who are now introducing new selections for our gardens.

The Arnold Arboretum’s collection of lilacs is one of the oldest and largest in North America, but lilacs on our grounds predate the 1872 founding of the institution. Benjamin Bussey probably planted lilac hedgerows soon after he acquired the land in 1806. We have taken cuttings of the remnants of his lilacs, and have recreated the hedgerows on the east side of what is now called Bussey Hill.

Our Lilac Sunday festival, celebrated the second Sunday in May, has become a tradition of its own. Attendance on any given Lilac Sunday is difficult to estimate, but one noteworthy peak occurred in 1941, when 43,000 people are said to have visited.

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