Lilac Collection

Lilac Tree

The Arboretum's lilac collection displays examples of a favourite garden shrub, the lilac. Over 55 species and cultivated varieties (cultivars) in this collection reveal much about the diversity of wild and cultivated lilacs.

Lilacs in Human Culture

Lilacs came to North America with the pioneers of the early 1600's. Lilac plants could withstand a long sea voyage and grew well here. Many foundations of old farmsteads can be found today by searching around lilacs growing in the countryside (CAUTION - watch for old wells).

By crossing different species of lilacs and selecting some for unique traits, horticulturists have now produced over 1600 cultivated varieties (cultivars). The following are some of these traits.

Flower Colour Lilacs have been selected for many shades of  white, lavender, violet, blue, pink, magenta, purple, cream and even colour combinations.
Floret Structure Lilac flowers are very small and are often called florets ( miniature flowers). They have been selected for traits such as size, shape, petal number and how they cluster together.
Fragrance Lilacs have a very pleasant fragrance which varies with each species and often each cultivar.  Recent cultivars may not have the strong scent of older ones. This is likely due to selection for colour of the flowers as opposed to their scent.
Season of Bloom Some lilacs have been selected for the time of year they bloom.  This allows gardens to have  lilacs in bloom for over 6 weeks every spring.

Wild Lilacs

There are approximately 25 species of lilacs, all of which are native to Asia and southern Europe. There are no native species in North America, though the French lilacs have naturalized (invaded natural areas) here. French lilacs are naturalizing the northwestern edge of The Arboretum's lilac collection (see map in this brochure). Most lilacs are shrubs, but two species (Syringa reticulata and S. pekinensis) can grow up to 18 m tall.

The genus or Latin name for lilacs is Syringa, which is derived from the Greek word "syrinx" meaning "hollow stem". Ancient Greek doctors supposedly used these stems to inject medications into their patients or bleed them (looking at the size of the stems, you may appreciate present-day needles!). Lilacs are in the olive family (Oleaceae). Other members in this family include Forsythia, Privet and Ash (all of these can be found in The Arboretum's World of Trees collection).

The Lilac Collection

The lilac collection at The Arboretum, University of Guelph, gives a good overview of the lilacs. It shows a wide range of colour, floret structure and blooming times. The site is well suited for lilacs as they require full sun and adequate drainage to prevent flooding. Ample air circulation in this area also helps control a common lilac disease: powdery mildew.

Donors to this collection are listed in the Hales-McKay Memorial Shelter located near The Arboretum Centre.

To see lilacs in a formal garden setting, visit the Hospice Lilac Garden near The Arboretum entrance.

The following titles refer to classes noted on the labels at the base of each plant. The symbols identify each plant's class and its location on the map.

Species Lilacs These are lilacs that occur in the wild.  If the species name on the label is followed by "var." or "f.", the plant is a natural variation or form of the species.
Species Selections These are cultivated varieties of wild lilacs.  French lilacs are the best known of these.
French Lilacs (S. vulgaris)     These fragrant and popular lilacs are selections of the common lilac, S. vulgaris.  Common lilacs have naturalized the long grass areas to the northwest of the collection.  There are hundreds of different cultivars of this species and they display many colours and floret shapes.  'SENSATION' has purple flowers edged with white.


Map of the lilac collection

A label (shown below) at the base of each plant displays the following information.

-French Lilacs- (1)
Syringa vulgaris (2) 

1890 (3) (Lemoine) (4) France (5)
(1) Class - This shows if the lilac is a wild lilac (-Species Lilacs-) or cultivated lilac (eg.-Preston Lilacs-).

(2) Plant Name - The lilac's botanical (Latin) name is followed by a common name if it has one. A name in quotation marks was given to a cultivar by its originator (see below).

(3) Year - When a cultivar was introduced.

(4) Originator - If the name of the person or nursery who bred the cultivated lilac is known, it is displayed in brackets.

(5) Nativity - If the lilac is a wild lilac, its native location will be given. For a cultivar, the place where it was bred will be given.

If you are interested in making a donation to the lilac collection, please contact the Arboretum Director at 519-824-4120 ext. 52356.