Buying Lilacs in Autumn, aka Lilacs That Last, part 2
(Part 1 – bouquets – is here.)
Okay, it doesn’t look like lilac time, and the snow that fell on the Hudson Valley last Thursday doesn’t help. But looks can be deceiving; mid fall is when you go out and buy lilacs on sale –
If there are lilacs, that is, and they’re in good shape.
Why buy more? Silly question. Those with huge collections may have enough. The rest of us almost always need to add, because having a long lilac season requires multiple species as well as multiple varieties.
Other reputable sources say James is S. x josiflexa and still others, equally reputable, say it’s a hybrid between that and S. x prestoniae. Doesn’t matter, really, prestoniae and josiflexa both bloom about 3 weeks later than the well known common lilac (S. vulgaris).
Season stretching goes both ways, because S. x hyacinthiflora – I love super fragrant ‘Pocahontas’ – is about 2 weeks earlier than common lilacs, while S. pubescens ssp. patula – Miss Kim is the best known example – is about 2 weeks later than the common kind.
Except for the bloom times, hyacinthaflora and patula resemble vulgaris. The prestons and josiflexas, on the other hand, have trumpet shaped florets. That’s probably why they’re often called honeysuckle lilacs, though the nickname could also refer to a spicy sweet fragrance that’s lighter and less velvety than the traditional perfume. (Not sure you can call a fragrance velvety, but all lilac lovers will instantly know what I mean).
Then at the end it’s time for the tall guys: Chinese tree lilac, S. pekinensis and Japanese tree lilac, S. reticulata. Both tend to be multi-trunked, with bark that gets more and more attractive the older they get. Both have large trusses of yellowish white flowers that are only mildly fragrant, possibly because they’re usually far above nose range. Tree lilacs can be 30 feet tall.
On the good side, the tree types don’t start blooming until early summer – mid to late June at our house – at least 6 weeks after Pocahontas opens her pale purple buds. (It would probably be 2 months if she got more sun.)
Buying Lilacs in Autumn
Most of these rules really apply to any spring blooming shrub. If it flowers before July it’s just about guaranteed to be on sale now and often the only thing wrong with these plants is that they’re not sold yet. Sometimes, however, they’re not sold for a reason…
* A few dead twigs are no big deal, but if they’re numerous they’re a warning that the plant has had a bad summer from which it may or may not recover. (Don’t forget that skinny terminal growth may just be spent flower stems.)
* Buds will vary in size, and on small plants only a few will be what you might call fat, but all of them should be plump and unwrinkled.
* Basic structure should be sound, with stems well apart and only a few crossed or misshapen branches that will have to be pruned away.
* Identification is not guaranteed for plants that are on clearance. Tags that were clearly well secured to a branch in spring have the best chance of being accurate – anything on a stick stuck in the pot is a serious gamble.
* Roots. After a whole summer in a pot, roots can’t help being on the crowded side. Not a problem as long as they’re healthy, abundant and not winding around and around.
Remove the plant from the pot to check by cradling said pot in one arm, bracing the soil surface with your other hand, then tilting and shaking until the root ball comes out. That way you don’t put any strain on the plant itself.
What it does to your back is another matter; if the thing is big, ask for help. Confession: In an effort to save clothing chosen without plant shopping in mind, I started to knock this one loose and pull it up by the trunk. After politely pointing out my error, the nurseryman watching over the plants turned the lilac out, patiently held it for this portrait and wound up in a deep conversation about the deer problem.
I didn’t plan to stop here, but want to get this posted while there’s still time to shop. Before long we’ll have Part 3: the fall care that gives new and old lilacs a good start toward spring success.
Miscanthus photo by Bill Bakaitis