lilac Time(ing)

As lilac lovers go, I’m a very small timer: there are 8 of them in the New York yard; 10 in Maine, a mere token compared to big public collections like Highland Park, in Rochester NY, where 500 different lilacs – 1200 plants – are blooming right this minute.

But even our tiny assortment gives us a full six weeks of fragrant delight because it includes a few season stretchers: bushy, pale purple ‘Miss Kim’ (Syringa patula), pink-flowered ‘James Macfarlane’ (S. x prestoniae) and a 20 foot tall pair of Japanese tree lilacs (S. reticulata), all of which bloom later than the old fashioned French kind (S. vulgaris).


I wish I could tell you. I bought it at a clearance sale at an Agway now long gone and it was supposed to be a plain old single flowered purple lilac, the sort used for hedging in an ampler age.

Hence this bit of lilac advice: keep the sales slip until you see flowers. Mislabeling is fairly common and it’s vexing – take it from my experience – to get a dark purple-red that looks like ‘Charles Joly’ when you thought you bought a white ‘Miss Willmott’.

One way to know what you’re getting is to join up with the National Phenology Network and request one of their lilac clones. Follow the” submit data” links and you’ll be sent to the application form.

The lilac will be a ‘Red Rothomagensis’ (S. x chinensis) a somewhat gangly, fragrant early bloomer with reddish buds that open to dark pink flowers. There is a picture of one here.

And why is the National Phenology Network sending you this present? Because they want your help. Phenology is the art/science of measuring climate with biological events like frog song, fish migration and plant bloom; and lilacs were chosen, way back in the 1950’s, to be standard measuring instruments. Gardeners all over the country have been watching lilacs, sending in data and, as citizen scientists, helping to document the process of climate change. (In the Midwest, where the Network was born, spring – as measured by lilac – is now almost a week earlier than it was 50 years ago).


For now, we’re watching this common lilac, which is already in place in Maine. As long as you monitor the same plant, year after year, you can contribute useful data by watching any lilac you choose. But we will ask for a ‘Red Rothomagensis’ and start watching that one too, because that’s even better. By eliminating the variations of species, cultivar and individual plant, clones make it easier to measure accurately.

For more on this communal effort, read the short history of the project that was broadcast on National Public Radio or go directly to Project Budburst, where there are full instructions and a long list of alternate watch plants. If lilacs aren’t your thing – and for some reason you’re still reading – the list includes ocotillo, redbud, wild strawberry and many other common plants.

One warning about the clone: Can’t say for sure about RR, but most Chinese lilacs are very mildew prone, and although the fungus does no long-term harm it isn’t very attractive. Try to plant your contribution to science in an inconspicuous place.

PS: Losing your local Agway isn’t phenological, but it’s just as reliable as a measure of change. Our county in Maine ( Knox) has fewer and fewer farms and truck gardens, more and more suburban sprawl.

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