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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Persian Lilac, a lilac diva from the past

Persian Lilac blossoms

There is nothing new about the Persian Lilac (Syringa x persica) as this hybrid may be a couple of centuries old or older.  However, it is still one of the finest Lilacs of all time in my opinion.

On May 29, 1999, I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time examining the large lilac collection on display at the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, MN.  Two lilacs in particular that impressed me from this amazing collection were Himalayan Lilac (Syringa emodi) and 'Miss Canada' Preston Lilac (Syringa x prestoniae 'Miss Canada').  I did not see a Persian Lilac.  The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is in USDA plant hardiness zone 4a, while our University of Maryland campus is in zone 7a.  The Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and its hybrids seem to perform much better in cool summer climates such as Minnesota; however, the Persian Lilac seems to perform quite well in Maryland in our much warmer summer climate.  We may be hard pressed to grow attractive specimens of some of the beautiful lilacs that thrive so well in Minnesota; however, I feel that we can grow one of equivalent beauty and fragrance quite well, the Persian Lilac.

The Persian Lilac is more tolerant of adverse growing conditions than most other lilacs.  Once established, it can tolerate the weather extremes of a volatile continental climate such as that in southeastern Kansas quite well.  It can tolerate compacted, gravelly clay soils; however, it performs much better in good soils.  Most mature sizes for the Persian Lilac that I see listed in reference books I think are for ones grown in unfavorable environments or ones that may not have actually reached maturity.  While often Persian Lilac may get only 6 feet tall by 9 feet wide under poor growing conditions, in a favorable environment, it may get as large as 12 feet tall by 18 feet wide.  An example of Persian Lilacs planted in a favorable environment is a long hedge of them that I once observed that was planted for screening along the south property line of the Lincoln Country Club in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The climate, good soils, irrigation and full sun all came together to create some unusually large and vigorous Persian Lilacs.

Persian Lilac blossoms

Persian Lilacs can be covered with fragrant violet to lavender colored blooms at a very young age.  The flower petals open at a moderately intense violet color and then fade to a lighter pastel lavender color as they age.  The fragrance of the flowers is a very attractive, noticeable fragrance, not at all like the unattractive, overpowering Privet like fragrance of some lilacs or like other lilacs with barely any fragrance at all.  The Persian Lilacs on our campus have a much stronger and more pleasant fragrance than the Common Lilacs on our campus.  The small blossoms are organized in structures called panicles.  The panicles are usually looser and more relaxed than the densely packed rigid panicles of Common Lilac.  Sometimes these panicles of flowers can cover a Persian Lilac shrub so densely that it is hard to see the newly emerged foliage.  The 5-6 inch panicles sometimes seem to fuse together to form much larger panicles around 12 inches in width.  The flowers of Persian Lilacs are much more abundant under full sun conditions than under partial shade conditions.  While Persian Lilac can tolerate and survive light shade, it produces very few blooms in shaded conditions and the few panicles that are produced are much smaller in size than under full sun conditions.  While Common Lilac and its hybrids may be reluctant to bloom well or sometimes bloom at all in a number of environments, Persian Lilac is a much more dependable and prolific bloomer in many different environments.  It also starts blooming well at a much younger age. 

Persian Lilac is a sterile hybrid so there is no need for concern about it being an invasive plant material that will invade our native plant communities.  There is not a lot of variation in individual plants since that they are produced vegetatively; however, I did notice minor variation in panicle size and density as well as a plants with panicles with relaxed droopy habits rather than upright habits in the long hedge at the Lincoln Country Club.  The growth habit of a Persian Lilac is much more relaxed and graceful than the dense, rigid habit of the Common Lilac.

Persian Lilac blossoms

They will tolerate much more abuse and neglect than most other Lilacs.  Yes, you can shear them, cut them back to the ground and neglect to water them when established and usually no permanent damage will be done.  If you feel that you must prune or shear them, I would recommend doing that immediately after they are finished flowering.  If you plant them in an appropriate location, there should be little need for pruning Persian Lilacs.  Minimal to no pruning should produce the best flower displays.  Make sure that all pruning is completed by July 1 to allow time for next spring's flowers to form.  The suckering on Persian Lilacs is usually fairly minor compared to the massive fields of suckers that usually come up around Common Lilacs.  I have not observed that the few suckers on Persian Lilacs diminish the flowering habit.  This is not the case with the suckers on Common Lilac.  My experience has been that Persian Lilacs do not need the thinning out and renewal type of pruning to bloom well that Common Lilacs need.  You can do that if you love pruning; however, I don't think it will make a large difference to a Persian Lilacs health and amount of blooms like that it can on a Common Lilac.

Common Lilacs and other Lilacs can be devastated by an insect known as the Lilac Borer.  This is a bigger problem in the southern limits of where that Lilacs can grow as they are not as vigorous there and are not as likely to be able to fend off attacks by the Lilac Borer.  The slender stems and branches of the Persian Lilac are much more resistant to the Lilac Borer than the larger and thicker stems and branches of the Common Lilac.  The leaves on the Persian Lilac are much smaller than on the Common Lilac.

Persian Lilac growing in partial shade on the south side of Carroll Hall.  Persian Lilacs will be much denser and have many more blooms in a sunny location.

Lilacs are very susceptible to powdery mildew on the leaves.  While powdery mildew can occur on Persian Lilacs in summer and create an unattractive whitish powdery coating over the leaves, it is usually not such a serious problem that is causes near total defoliation like that often happens on Common Lilacs.  The near total defoliation of Common Lilacs can impact their health in a negative way as they cannot produce the necessary food for good health without their leaves.

Persian Lilacs may be hard to find at local nurseries as there has been a very limited demand for them in recent decades.  One nursery near our campus that often has a limited number of Persian Lilacs available in 3 gallon pots in the early and mid spring time period is the Behnke Nurseries Company, 11300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD, 20705, (301) 937-1100.  Merrifeld Garden Center, 8132 Lee Hwy, Merrifield, VA  22116, (703) 560-6222 carries Persian Lilacs in two different sizes.  If you are a local retail nursery located within 50 miles of our campus and carry Persian Lilac, please let me know and I will add your nursery's contact information to this article.

While I have not tried the 'Miss Canada' Preston Lilac (Syringa x prestoniae 'Miss Canada') mentioned at the start of this article; Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Manager, with The Behnke Nurseries Company said that it does much better in our College Park, MD area than that the Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and its hybrids do.

Persian Lilacs remind me of Azaleas in that they have a brief moment of glory when in bloom; however, they are relatively nondescript plants after that.  For some of us, once you have experienced the wonderful fragrance of Persian Lilacs and realize how easy that their care is, it easy to say 'Hello Sustainable Persian Lilacs,' and 'Goodbye High Maintenance Azaleas' that do not provide additional benefits like fragrance.  Persian Lilacs are often best used in large backyards, community property or public parks.  They would make a great screen for the small rusted metal tool and equipment shed located in the far corner of the backyard.  The smaller Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin) is a much more attractive landscape shrub for high profile areas such as front yards or adjacent to a patio; however, the blooms and panicles are much smaller and do not have the same wonderful fragrance of the Persian Lilac.

The flower panicles of Persian Lilacs can make great short lived cut flower arrangements.  No need to spray that fake scent in a spray can that florists often have to use with many cut roses and carnations as Persian Lilac flowers come with an awesome fragrance that is strong, but not overpowering.  No need for scented candles when the Persian Lilacs are in bloom.

Persian Lilacs as a sheared hedge in partial shade on the South side of Cole Field House.  The partial shade and the shearing has reduced the number of flowers to just a handful on these three plants.

closeup shot of the above sheared lilac hedge

close-up of blossoms on the top of the above sheared Persian Lilac hedge

close-up of blossoms on the side of the above sheared Persian Lilac hedge

Persian Lilacs are such tough and durable plants once established that they make good plants for cemeteries and other areas where that maintenance is often minimal.  They make a good plant for areas that are not irrigated once established.  Sometimes you can spot them in rural areas along the side of a road or in an abandoned farm yard where that they were once planted by people long ago.  The sight of the lilacs brings thoughts and questions about who were these people that planted these lilacs?  What was their story?  Often, you see Persian Lilacs growing in shady locations.  I feel that these locations were probably sunny when the Persian Lilacs were first planted.  Because of their durability and longevity, they often survive the transition from sun to light shade as trees grow.  The Persian Lilac is a plant that deserves to be brought out of the shadows of the past.

One of the good memories of my youth was experiencing a recycled decorative glass Tang drink mix container filled with water and fragrant Persian Lilac flowers that was set in the middle of the well worn gray faux wood grain Formica dining table.  I loved breathing deep to try to more fully experience the wonderful aroma from the Lilac flowers.

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Contact Information for the University of Maryland Arboretum and Botanical Garden

Mailing and Shipping address (This is the location of our partner, UMD Landscape Services, and the office of our Assistant Director, Karen Petroff):
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Wye Oak Building (428)
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phone: 301-405-3320
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Arboretum Outreach Center (156)
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phone: 301-405-3320
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hours: 7 am to 3:30 pm, M-F, by appointment or prescheduled times only, as sometimes everyone is out on campus and the building will be locked

Click on the below link to a campus map, click on the address search tab and then enter the campus locations to find out where buildings are located. As of September 10, 2015, Google does not have the correct locations, while this map does. There is a second, more complex, interactive campus map that has much more information on it such as parking locations, public transportation etc. when you use the red 'layers' tab. The red 'directions' tab will allow you to get directions from one building to another.

blog administrator, Sam Bahr, 301-405-7926 or 301-405-3320

updated 10/6/2015


Our gardens are free and open to the public. There are some parking lots (read the signs for that parking lot carefully) that are free to park in after 4 pm and before 7 am and on weekends, except on game days and during other special events. There is public parking in four large parking garages at the rate of $3 per hour with a daily maximum of $15. On weekends in the garages, the rate is $3 per hour with a daily maximum rate of $5 per hour. There is a small amount of additional pay parking along some streets. Navigation around campus is much easier with these interactive campus maps: You can look up parking locations and building locations using this map. Use the search tab to bring up the page to search for campus building names, locations and addresses.

updated 10/6/2015

Butterfly feeding on the nectar of Russian Sage blossoms

General Information about the UMD Arboretum and Botanical Garden

The University of Maryland, the state’s flagship campus, is located in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. The American Association of Public Gardens, by designating the university as an arboretum and botanical garden in 2008, recognized former President C.D. Mote, Jr.’s commitment to becoming a green campus. Maryland is also the first university in the state to be honored as a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation.

The Arboretum and Botanical Garden consists of our entire 1,250 acre College Park, Maryland campus. The Campus collection of over 8,000 trees, garden plantings and nearly 400 acres of undeveloped urban forest is a beautiful reminder of Maryland’s history and a harbinger of Maryland’s future. The university looks at the campus’ green space as a major resource for its educational, research and service missions.

Hornbake Plaza

Hornbake Plaza
Honeylocust fall foliage color

UMD Arboretum and Botanical Garden Plant Inventory

You can look up the identity of many trees and a few other plant materials using this interactive campus map: Click on proceed to map. Then click on the dark red 'layers' tab in the upper left corner. Next select 'Arboretum and Botanical Garden' and then click on the box in front of 'campus plant inventory.' Wait for green dots to slowly fill up the map, then click on the green dots on the campus map to identify the plant materials. Our plant inventory or plant collections database can also be considered a plant database, plant search, plant locator or plant finder for campus plantings.

Tawes Plaza

Tawes Plaza
Kim's Knee High Purple Coneflower, Russian Sage, White Out Rose and Dwarf Pampas Grass are featured in this planting.