Purple Lilacs: Fragrant Favorites of New Hampshire

Purple Lilacs: Fragrant Favorites of New Hampshire

by Naomi Mathews

You can always count on fragrant purple lilacs blooming in springtime, especially in the state of New Hampshire. Going back in time some two- hundred fifty years ago, research shows that purple lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) were first imported to America from England in the year 1750. They were initially planted at Governor Benning Wentworth's home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Many flowers were favored and promoted in lengthy and often heated battles about which one would best serve as New Hampshire's state flower. Some rivals of the purple lilac included the buttercup, goldenrod, Mayflower, wood lily, purple aster, apple blossom, and the evening primrose. The last lengthy battle was between the evening primrose and the purple lilac.


Flowering Shrubs Shrubs are among the most versatile of garden plants. They can fill the landscape with color, shape, and texture all year long, with flowers in the spring, lovely foliage in the summer, and berries and bright leaves autumn. They even add shape and texture to the winter garden. Although this bulletin deals mainly with flowering shrubs, the wealth of information can be applied to most any shrub.

Since the purple lilac proved to be a very hardy shrub, it seems only fitting that it was finally adopted as New Hampshire's official state flower on March 28, 1919. As recorded in his book "To This Day," New Hampshire historian Leon Anderson writes that the purple lilac was chosen because ". . . it is symbolic of that hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State." [New Hampshire Revised Statute Annotated [RSA] 3:5].

Today, fragrant purple lilacs bloom profusely in towns, hamlets, and farms throughout the state of New Hampshire. Their fame, fragrance, and beauty have long since spread across all of America and other countries as well.

Lilacs have been loved for many generations, both for their beauty and for their irresistible fragrance. They have often been labeled as a "poor man's flower" as they are among the easiest of flowering shrubs to propagate. Lilacs are also reminiscent of springtime, young love, grandparents, romantic poetry and other writings . Illustrations of colorful lilac blossoms can be found on greeting cards, gift wrap, stationary, perfumes, sachets, fabrics, and breathtakingly beautiful paintings and photographs.

Since those first purple lilacs were imported to New Hampshire, hundreds of new species and hybrids have been developed in America and in other countries. Some of those countries include France, China, Eastern Europe, Korea, Persia, Hungary, and Japan. A unique cultivar of the Syringa vulgaris aptly named "Rochester" has been developed in America. This species differs from other lilacs in that it has five lobes on each floret instead of the usual four. As an interesting side note, Rochester, New Hampshire is known as "The Lilac City."

Lilacs come in a wonderful array of colors today that include violet, pink, blue, magenta, white to creamy white, lilac, and purple, depending on their species. Common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) are hardy deciduous shrubs with heart-shaped leaves of deep green. Their fragrant blossoms consist of large clusters formed by a myriad of tiny florets, and are borne at the ends of its branches. It's not unusual for the common lilac to grow to 15-20 feet tall.

A very popular flowering shrub, lilacs serve many purposes in gardens. They are wonderful planted as hedges, or perhaps as screens between neighboring yards. Planted as single specimen shrubs, they are truly showstoppers when in full bloom during mid-spring. Their fragrant blossoms linger for many weeks, whether left on the bush or cut for long- lasting nostalgic bouquets. Dwarf varieties that reach only 3 to 3-1/2 feet are favorites for small cottage gardens. Cottage gardeners favor lilacs for they are harbingers of spring, their refreshing perfumed blossoms chasing away winter's gloom.

Tips for Growing Beautiful, Fragrant Lilac

Soil, Sunshine, and Water

Lilacs prefer well-drained, alkaline soil and plenty of sunshine for optimum growth and blooming. If your soil leans toward being acidic, amend it by cultivating some lime into it before planting your lilacs. It's also best to select a site where your lilacs won't be exposed to the wind. Although lilacs love water, they don't enjoy soggy soil. Without proper drainage, lilacs will do little growing and produce fewer blossoms.

Site, Spacing, and Planting

For best results, purchase lilacs from a nursery or garden center where they have been growing in containers. Should you have a large garden area where you want to plant several lilacs of different colors in a group, keep in mind that they will need room to spread. Space larger varieties at least 12-15 feet apart to provide them the spreading room they need. Smaller or dwarf varieties will require less spreading space. Making sure your lilacs have ample room to spread before planting them will prevent future transplanting problems.

Proper Aftercare Promotes Healthy Lilacs

After your lilacs are planted, it is essential to water them regularly during hot summer months. Mulching them with a layer of pine bark will help prevent them from becoming heat-stressed, as mulch helps the soil retain water. Remember not to overwater and always provide adequate drainage.

All plants need nutrients, and lilacs are no exception. Fertilizing with a reliable 5-10-5 fertilizer in the spring is appropriate for lilacs. Check with your local nursery or garden center if you're uncertain about which fertilizer is best for your particular species. Avoid over-fertilizing as this produces more foliage and fewer blossoms.

Removing any spent flower clusters shortly after they have finished blooming is recommended. This prevents them from forming more seeds than flower buds for the following spring. After the blossoms are all spent for the summer, you may wish to prune your lilac bushes lightly just to reshape them. You can also help control your lilac's growth in the first few years by doing very light pruning and shaping. Hard pruning isn't necessary unless you need to reduce the size of your bush or rejuvenate an older plant.

Some "Bugaboos" to Watch For

Nobody likes to think that their lovely lilacs will ever be invaded by nasty "bugaboos!" However, they can be attacked by leaf miners, stem borers, or scale. Other problems that could be bothersome include mildew, leaf spot, and bacterial blight. Treat any such problems properly treated to maintain healthy growth of your lilacs. Check with a reliable nursery or garden center for the best treatment of these problems.

For those of you who enjoy festivals, you may want to consider taking in the annual Lilac Festival held in Rochester, New York. This festival is being held in Highland Park where John Dunbar, the park's horticulturalist, planted the first lilacs in 1892. His successor, Bernard H. Slavin, followed Dunbar's vision and increased the lilac collection. There are now around 1200 lilac bushes of more than 500 varieties growing in Highland Park. It is noted for having the largest collection of lilacs in the world. Fragrant lilacs blooming in magical colors from deep purple to pure white cover 22 of Highland Park's 155 acres. This spectacular Lilac Festival would be a treat for any lilac enthusiast to attend.

What a beautiful tribute the purple lilac is to the state of New Hampshire. And all because someone cared enough to nurture those first few lilacs planted in Portsmouth, New Hampshire so many years ago.

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