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Southern Exposure: Lilacs

Martha Stewart Living, March 2009

For Walt Whitman, lilacs were the soul of spring: "With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,With every leaf a miracle..." 

But because the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, needs a period of cold to bloom, gardeners in mild regions haven't always been able to grow the shrub Whitman immortalized.

Happily, there are some lilacs that don't require cold weather. The best of these mild-climate lilacs were created in 1876 by French nurseryman Victor Lemoine. He crossed common European lilacs with the Chinese S. oblata to create S. x hyacinthiflora. The hybrid's tiny flowers reminded Lemoine of hyacinth -- hence the name.

Many more mild-weather lilacs have arisen from Lemoine's hybrids. There's the heavily scented, rosy 'Anabel,' the floriferous, pink-blue 'Excel,' and the vivid-purple 'Pocahontas.'

Perhaps the most famous of this family are the Descanso hybrids, which were developed in the mid-20th century and named after the botanical garden near Los Angeles where they were born. These come in a range of hues, including soft 'Angel White,' blush 'California Rose,' and deep-purple 'Dark Night.' They look and act like other lilacs, growing tall, branching, blooming, smelling sweet.

Growing and Caring for Lilacs
Gardeners can treat mild-climate lilacs much as they do common lilacs. Both relish full sun and well-drained soil enhanced with organic compost. When the soil gets dry, the plants should be watered deeply. But in locales that are warm year-round, watering should cease after mid-September. This will force lilacs into dormancy, encouraging lush blooms.

Right after lilac flowers finish, they should be snipped off. Watering should resume, and the plants should be fertilized with organic food (cottonseed and blood meal, for example). Removing deadwood around the plants' centers will promote air circulation. Tops can be trimmed, too, to keep lilacs at smelling height. The reward, spring after spring, will be a crowd of star-shape blooms, filling the garden with the perfume of the season.

Lilacs for Mild Climates
Low-chill lilacs are ideal for gardeners in regions that don't get cold enough for the common variety. But the plants, hardy in Zones 3 to 8, can be grown successfully in many parts of the country. The lilacs bloom from mid- to late March and grow 5 feet wide and 8 to 12 feet tall.

Below, left to right: 'F.K. Smith,' 'Descanso Giant,' 'Descanso Princess' 

Below, left to right: 'Angel White,' 'Nokomis'