Archive for June 9th, 2009


One of the most beautiful of spring-blooming shrubs is also an old favorite, the Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris). Lilacs are members of the olive family (Oleaceae), along with olive trees, forsythia and jasmine. Syringa vulgaris is native to southeastern Europe. There are no lilac species native to North America, but lilacs were one of the most common plants brought to the new world by pioneer settlers. In fact, a large lilac bush can often be found, still blooming each spring, near the remains of old homesteads, living evidence of a once-loved home. Such is the case with the handsome shrub picture above, growing east of Willow House.

In the 1800s, the breeding of lilacs became popular and by 1900, so many of the better cultivars came from France that the term “French Hybrid” is often used to describe all cultivars of the common lilac, even though many were bred in other European countries or North America.


Lilacs have an Ottawa connection. Isabella Preston (1881-1965) was born in England and at the age of 30, she moved to Guelph, where she studied at the Ontario Agricultural College (now the University of Guelph). In 1920, she was hired by the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa to establish a breeding program for ornamental plants. Although she also worked with roses, lilies, and other ornamentals, some of her best results were with lilacs. She eventually introduced 47 cultivars, including “Agnes Smith”, above. In December of 1946, Preston, pictured below, retired and, after a year in Britain, moved to Georgetown, Ontario, where she continued to garden. (Photo of Isabella Preston from Friends of the Farm.)


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