Hearty lilacs earned their place as New Hampshire's state flower and serve as a sure sign of spring
The fragrance of lilacs is synonymous with springtime in New Hampshire. Even though they are not native plants, lilacs are deeply rooted in our past. One of the earliest known plantings of lilacs in the United States, dating from 1750, is at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth. Lilacs took root in the New World along with the early settlers as they headed west-just look at the number of plants found still blooming around old cellar holes, in abandoned graveyards and on town commons across the country.
When introduced as a contender for the New Hampshire state flower in 1919, the purple lilac was up against nine other favorite flowers. The voting was contentious-at one point the committee even resorted to picking names out of a hat (according to the story "Leon Anderson's History: Colorful Sessions on Flowers from the Manual for the General Court," from a booklet published by the Governor's Lilac and Wildflower Commission)-but finally the lilac won out. On March 28, 1919, Governor John Bartlett signed the law designating the purple lilac as the New Hampshire state flower.
There are about two dozen species of lilacs in the world and more than two thousand named varieties. These plants range in size from four-foot-tall shrubs to thirty-foot-tall tree lilacs; can bear single or double flowers; and come in seven "official" colors, according to the International Lilac Society-white, pink, violet, blue, lavender, magenta and purple. The most fragrant lilacs are descended from the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, which is native to Eastern Europe. There are more than twenty other species of lilacs that hail from different parts of Asia. Through the years, lilacs have been the subject of intense hybridizing, resulting in early, mid-season and late varieties that blossom from May to July, stretching the season of bloom for lilac lovers.
Guy Giunta, chairman of the Governor's Lilac and Wildflower Commission, has overseen the planting of thousands of lilacs around the state. "Along with being the state flower, these are very hardy, durable plants. The large blossoms and fragrance make them appealing. Even the highway plantings that are subjected to road salt are still very hardy," Giunta says. The commission, which has been in place since 1984, makes lilac plants available to towns (in limited quantities) for planting on public lands.
Giunta prefers container-grown plants that can be successfully transplanted anytime from April through October. "When purchasing lilacs, look for ownroot plants, not grafted ones, that are two- to four-feet tall growing in containers or with a ball of soil around the roots," Giunta says. "They will establish quickly and give you flowers in two to three years." Lilacs ordered through the mail probably will be bare-root plants. "They will need extra attention for the first few years to get them off to a good start," he says.
"Lilacs do best in full sun, and they do not like wet feet, so plant in loamy, well-drained soil with a pH between 6 and 7," Giunta advises. "Adding organic matter will improve drainage and moisture retention." Position specimen
plants between ten feet and fifteen feet apart; if you are planning a lilac hedge or mass planting, place the plants as close as five feet apart. "Newly transplanted lilacs don't compete well with other vegetation," Giunta says, "so keep at least two feet of cleared space around each plant." Mulching with three inches of wood chips or bark mulch also helps to reduce weeds, retain moisture and prevent frost heaving.
"Keeping your new transplant wellwatered during its first year is critical," Giunta says. All newly planted shrubs should receive a good watering two or three times per week for the first month. After that, lilacs should be deeply watered once a week. Most trees and shrubs require 1 inch of water per week during the growing season. Even though lilacs are tough, they are susceptible to drought, so be sure to water even established plants during prolonged
dry spells, especially if the leaves are wilting.
Caring for lilacs
"Lilacs respond vigorously to regular, liberal amounts of fertilizer," Giunta says. "One or two large handfuls of 5-10-5 granular fertilizer broadcast on top of the soil in early spring will enhance growth and flowering." Slowrelease or organic fertilizer can be applied anytime in the season. Add a handful of limestone or wood ashes every two or three years to sweeten the soil. Deadhead spent flowers within a week after blooming to direct the plant's energy away from seed production and into making new buds for next year's blossoms.
The most common reason lilacs fail to bloom is lack of light; they need at least six hours of full sun a day. "The more sun the better!" says Giunta.
Pruning is unnecessary for the first five years, but if your lilacs are older, they may need to have some stems cut out at the base to make way for new growth. Removing one-third of the oldest wood each year for three years will gradually rejuvenate your lilac without sacrificing all the bloom. The more new growth you can encourage, the more flowers you'll have in the future. While any pruning should occur after blossoming has past, a good rule of thumb is not to prune after the Fourth of July or you will cut the newly formed buds for next season's flowers.
In spring 2010, the lilacs at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion were found to be suffering from a root-rotting fungus called Armillaria. To eradicate it, gardeners had to remove all the dead and diseased wood. This meant canceling the popular Lilac Festival. "It takes at least a year or two of fallow ground for the Armillaria to die off," says Noele Clews, chair of the Wentworth-Coolidge Commission. "Syringa Plus nursery has started 250 new plants for us from stock they had of the original plantings. We will be replanting after a pathologist tests the soil to be sure the fungus is gone."
This year, the Lilac Festival is scheduled for Saturday, May 28, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine.
Looking at Lilacs
There are several opportunities this spring to learn more about lilacs and enjoy them in bloom.
Enjoy free guided and self-guided tours of one of the oldest and largest lilac collections in the United States with more than 500 plants of 230 different types, including a hedge of lilacs dating from 1806. In addition, some gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.
The Arnold Arboretum
125 Arborway in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion Lilac Festival
This annual event returns with lilac sales (including small, original Syringa vulgaris from the mansion); video presentations of lilac and mansion history; lilac lectures; lilac paintings and photos; free, guided tours of the mansion; children's events, such as building woodland fairy houses, art projects as well as a treasure hunt or scavenger hunt; and a silent auction.
10 a.m.-3 p.m., rain or shine.
The Wentworth-Coolidge State Historic Site
375 Little Harbor Road in Portsmouth
Weekends in May
Syringa Plus Lilac Walks
Get a rare look inside one of the premier lilac nurseries in the country, see propagation demonstrations and experience one hundred different lilac cultivars in bloom.
10 a.m.-3 p.m.
210 Bachelor Street in West Newbury, Massachusetts
Throughout the Lilac Season
See more than sixty rare and unusual lilac cultivars, including Russian hybrids.
Lake Street Garden Center
37 Lake Street in Salem