I think the best place to start is with the obvious question: Why are they called French Lilacs? Well, it has nothing to do with their place of origin, which is much further east in the Balkan peninsula and parts of temperate Asia. The botanical name also gives no clues as Syringa is actually the Greek word for pipes (Syrinx) coupled with the Latin term for common, vulgaris. This alludes to the Greek myth where Pan chases a nymph named Syringa, who changes herself into a Lilac bush to evade capture, and yet Pan still manages to find her and uses the wood from the bush to create the first Pan Pipe.
So just where is this French connection? It can actually be attributed to a prolific plant breeder from France, Victor Lemoine, who along with his sons produced 129 new cultivars of Syringa vulgaris from 1870 to 1955. Truth be told, the elderly Victor had his younger wife, Marie-Louise, do most of the difficult work of climbing the ladders and cross-pollinating the lilacs, so without her Syringa vulgaris might have been known as German or Russian Lilacs, as both those countries also had extensive breeding programs. Many of the Lemoine Nursery French Lilacs remain standard varieties to this day, including ‘Monge’ (1913), ‘President Grevy’ (1886), ‘Charles Joly’ (1896), ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ (1922), ‘Belle de Nancy’ (1891) and the aptly named ‘Madame Lemoine’ (1890).
Throughout history, Syringa vulgaris has been an important plant to many cultures. The Celts believed it to be magical due to the enticing fragrance of the flowers. Victorian widows often wore sprigs of white lilacs in remembrance of lost loves. In Russia, a small bouquet of lilac blooms was held over newborn babies as a means of imparting wisdom, and even at the end of life, they were favoured as funeral flowers, as the sweet scent would mask the smell of death. French Lilacs were favourites of early American presidents, as both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew them in their respective gardens and their first recorded appearance in Canada appears to be in Toronto around 1816, where ‘white laylocks’ are mentioned in personal correspondence.
Syringa vulgaris Varieties
They are also long-lived bushes, thriving up to a hundred years or more, with abandoned shrubs often marking the sites of long-lost homesteads or farms. In general, Syringa vulgaris is a tall (8-10’) deciduous shrub, although there is one dwarf form, called ‘Prairie Petite’ (4’ tall and wide). The flower colour ranges from deep lilac (‘Souvenir de Louis Spaeth’), yellow (‘Primrose’), lavender-blue (‘Hope’ or ‘Nadezhda’), white (‘Alba’), double pale pink (‘Beauty of Moscow’) and even variegated bicolour forms like ‘Sensation’ and ‘Lila Wonder’
Syringa vulgaris Placement & Pruning
They prefer part to full sun with fertile, well-drained soils and a neutral to slightly alkaline pH, so don’t add any peat moss to the planting hole. Pruning is right after the blooms fade and should include deadheading any seedheads, as these divert energy away from the production of next year’s flower buds.
Did You Know That Lilac Flowers Are Edible?
Candied Lilac Flowers
Another little-known fact about French Lilacs is that the flowers are edible; in fact, candied lilac flowers are a delicacy in France.
You can make your own! Here's how:
- Beat an egg white and a little water until frothy.
- Paint cleaned and dried lilac flowers with the liquid.
- Drop them into a bowl of very fine berry sugar.
- Coat them entirely.
- Place them on some wax paper to dry.
These make very tasty cupcake decorations. Expect the flavour to be similar to the sweet scent, but with a hint of citrus and violet.
Lilac syrup is another edible option that can be used lightly drizzled on vanilla ice cream or added to sparkling water and ice for a refreshing summer beverage.
Lilac Syrup is easily made! Here's how:
- Dissolve one cup of sugar with an equal amount of water.
- Bring it to a boil.
- Add one cup of lilac flowers (removed from stems) and a few blackberries or blueberries for added colour.
- Cook over low heat for 10-15 minutes.
- Strain through cheesecloth.
- Put it in a sterile jar where it will keep for about two weeks in the refrigerator.
My last piece of advice regarding French Lilacs is to buy yours before Mothers Day, which is our busiest day of the year, after which there are very few flowering plants to be had in the nursery.