Oh to be at Highdown now the Spring lilacs are here….. Head gardener Gary expla…


Oh to be at Highdown now the Spring lilacs are here…..

Head gardener Gary explains how the emergence of these delicate pretty flowers coincides with May, one of the busiest in the year in the gardens.

The early spring bulbs, Anemones and Daffodils are now over and their foliage has to be left to die away naturally.

The greenhouse sowings need constant attention, and the surge of germinating weed growth has to be controlled. The lawns have to be mowed, and the beds edged. But what a fabulous time to be out in the Gardens as the trees and shrubs come into their splendour..

Early May is lilac time.

The lilacs are quite at home on the chalky soil and form large shrubs; the older specimens attaining tree-like proportions.

Many of the Syringa vulgaris (Common Lilac) hybrids were raised towards the end of the 19th century by the great nurseryman Victor Lemoine and his son Emile at Nancy in France. Sir Frederick Stern, the former owner of Highdown and pioneering gardener, experimented with many of these hybrids, and would comment in his card index if a hybrid or even a species was “not worth growing” or “poor; outed!”‌

The Lilacs look lovely this week as the mass of flowers open.

The only problem we have is that on the older specimens, large boughs tend to break under the weight of the flowers.

The Vulgaris hybrids come with either single or double flowers. Of the best singles grown at Highdown are ‘Jan van Tol’, a pure white; ‘Souvenir de Louis Spath’, a wine red; and probably the best ‘Massena’, a deep reddish purple.

Of the doubles, ‘Président Grévy’ with huge lilac-blue panicles of flower is outstanding. The cultivar ‘Madame Katherine Havemeyer’ has purple-lavender flowers which fade to a pale pink. ‘Souvenir d’Alice Harding’ is a pure alabaster white with tall panicles of bloom. The latter was named after Alice Harding who wrote a magnificent book on the genus Syringa.

There is a species Syringa which is my favourite in the garden: Syringa persica ‘Laciniata’. This can be seen both in the orchard and in the lower garden. This Persian lilac has a much more graceful form than the common lilacs, comprising pretty dissected leaves and loose panicles of lilac-coloured flowers that smother the whole shrub. The scent on a warm day will blow your socks off!‌

Sir Frederick recommended the removal of spent flowers on the large hybrid lilacs after flowering to improve flowers in the following year. This we seldom do now due to the pressure of the other work during this very busy month, but some light summer pruning of extra-strong shoots is worthwhile after flowering to keep the shrubs in shape.‌

One final plant to look out for this week in the Gardens: Clematis montana ‘Highdown’. This clematis was selected by Stern and can be seen just outside the garden bungalow. It’s now about 7m growing into an old cotoneaster, and has pale pink flowers with yellow anthers along with bronze-coloured, downy foliage. Also known as Clematis x vedrariensis ‘Highdown’, this is just coming into its best.

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