Syringa vulgaris (Lilac or Common Lilac) is a species of Syringa in the olive family Oleaceae, native to the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe, where it grows on rocky hills.
It is a large deciduous shrub
or multi-stemmed small tree
, growing to 6–7 m high, producing secondary shoots ("suckers") with stem diameters of up to 20 cm. from the base or roots, which in the course of decades may produce a small clonal thicket. The bark
is grey to grey-brown, smooth on young stems, longitudinally furrowed and flaking on older stems. The leaves
are simple, 4–12 cm long and 3–8 cm broad, light green to glaucous, oval to cordate, with pinnate leaf venation, a mucronate apex
and an entire margin. They are arranged in opposite pairs or occasionally in whorls of three. The flowers
have a tubular base to the corolla
6–10 mm long with an open four-lobed apex 5–8 mm across, usually lilac to mauve, occasionally white. They are arranged in a dense, terminal panicle
8-18 cm long. The fruit
is a dry, smooth brown capsule
, 1–2 cm long, splitting in two to release the two winged seeds
Lilacs— both Syringa vulgaris
and S. x persica
, the finer, smaller "Persian Lilac", now considered a natural hybrid— were introduced into European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century, from Ottoman
gardens, not through botanists exploring the Balkan habitats of S. vulgaris
. The Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq
, is generally credited with supplying lilac slips to Carolus Clusius
, about 1562. Well-connected botanists, like the great herbalist John Gerard
, soon had the rarity in their gardens: Gerard notes that he had lilacs growing “in very great plenty” in 1597, but lilacs were not mentioned by Shakespeare
, and John Loudon
was of the opinion that the Persian lilac had been introduced into English gardens by John Tradescant the elder
. Tradescant's Continental source for information on the lilac , and perhaps ultimately for the plants, was Pietro Andrea Mattioli
, as one can tell from a unique copy of Tradescant's plant list in his Lambeth
garden, an adjunct of his Musaeum Tradescantianum
; it was printed, though probably not published, in 1634: it lists Lilac Matthioli
. That Tradescant's "lilac of Mattioli's" was a white one is shown by Elias Ashmole
's manuscript list, Trees found in Mrs Tredescants Ground when it came into my possession
(1662): "Syringa alba".
In the American colonies lilacs were introduced in the eighteenth century. Peter Collinson, F.R.S., wrote to the Pennsylvania gardener and botanist John Bartram, proposing to send him some, and remarked that John Custis of Virginia had a fine "collection", which Ann Leighton interpreted as signifying Common and Persian Lilacs, in both purple and white, "the entire range of lilacs possible" at the time.
Common Lilac is a very common ornamental plant
in gardens and parks, because of the attractive, sweet smell of its flowers. Most garden plants are cultivars
("French Lilacs") with flowers varying from white to dark lilac; some have double flowers with the stamens replaced by extra petals. The cultivar 'Aurea' has yellowish foliage. The majority of garden cultivars do not exceed 4-5 m tall.
In late summer, lilacs are attacked by powdery mildew, specifically Erysiphe syringae, one of the Erysiphaceae. There is no fall color and the seed clusters have no esthetic appeal.
Common lilac tends to flower profusely in alternate years, a habit that can be improved by deadheading the flower clusters after the color has faded and before seeds, few of which are fertile, form. At the same time twiggy growth on shoots that have flowered more than once or twice can be cut to a strong, outward-growing side shoot.
It is widely naturalised in western and northern Europe. In a sign of its complete naturalization in North America, it has been selected as the state flower of the state of New Hampshire, because it "is symbolic of that hardy character of the men and women of the Granite State". Additional hardiness, for Canadian gardens, was bred for in a series of S. vulgaris hybrids by Isabella Preston, who introduced many of the later-blooming varieties, whose later-developing flower-buds are better protected from late spring frosts; the Syringa x prestoniae hybrids range primarily in the pink and lavender shades.