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Trees and Shrubs

Trees and Shrubs

Practical Advice and the Science Behind It
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Lilacs for the Garden

Considering the Lilacs From Old World to New with a French connection

"These are well-known hardy shrubs which grow well everywhere, in every soil and all exposures."
-- D.W. Beadle, Canadian Fruit Flower and Kitchen Gardener (1872)

Everywhere. Every soil. All exposures. Consider the lilacs of the field, how they grow. They are not fertilized, nor are they pruned, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Come May, the Bible is paraphrased in abandoned farm fields and along country roads in eastern Ontario, where I live. This is lilac country, where for two weeks in spring, the abundance of flower and perfume has to be experienced to be believed. And like sleek pets looking over the fence at their wilder kin, there are lilacs in almost every garden showing off bigger blooms and brighter colors before, during and after the roadside show.

The lilac was once called the poor man's flower. The reason was that common lilacs were the chain letters of horticulture: You simply pried a rooted shoot from the base of a shrub and planted it somewhere else -- just about anywhere else. Even mature lilacs could be moved. More than two centuries ago, George Washington wrote in his journal, "Removed two pretty large and full grown Lilacs to the No. Garden gate, one on each side, taking up as much dirt with the roots as cd. be well obtained." Lilacs tolerate drought, cold winters, dry, hot summers and almost any soil. They are undemanding and generous, the perfect guests. Thanks to lilac tenacity, they grow splendidly and abundantly -- sometimes too abundantly -- from northern Canada to Colorado, as tough as the settlers who brought them. The lilac is the state flower of New Hampshire because, according to historian Leon Anderson, it is "symbolic of that hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State."

Lilacs flourish as though they've always been here, but their time on this continent has been brief. As Ernest H. Wilson of the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts said about lilacs, "None are indigenous in America, but notwithstanding this, all the species introduced have proved hardy in the arboretum. A singular and most interesting fact." Lilacs simply happen to like it here, all 20-odd species of them.


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