The beginning of summer is off to a good start when the lilacs begin to bloom! What gorgeous flowers! And what a bewitching scent! That said, for several years, we have been able to get our hands on lilac varieties that are less suckering and whose flower quality far surpasses that of the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris). And among these beautiful lilacs, there is one group in particular that tops them all: Russian lilacs.
The Origins of Russian Lilacs
Hybridization of lilacs began in the 1800s, with what are commonly known as French lilacs. Several varieties still cultivated today have their origins in the hybridization work of Charles Lemoine: ‘Belle de Nancy’, ‘Madame Lemoine’, ‘Charles Joly’, etc.
It was in the 1940s to 1960s that Leonid Kolesnikov created around fifty new varieties, each one more interesting than the next. First, it is the quality of the flowers and the fragrances that are the main attractions of these lilacs. Flowers are large and full. But they also have the great advantage of being very hardy (USDA zone 3 to 7) and disease resistant. Unfortunately, there are barely a handful of cultivars easily available in North America. Kolesnikov ‘s contribution was so important to the advancement of lilacs that the great international lilac symposium, held in 2018, was dedicated to the 125th birth anniversary of the hybridizer. There’s even a book (in Russian) entirely dedicated to Kolesnikov ‘s work. Here are three varieties of Russian lilac that are relatively easy to find.
The Beauty of Moscow
‘Beauty of Moscow’ is a literal translation of its original name ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’. This lilac lends itself well to tree pruning (12 to 18 feet high (4 to 6 meters)). It bears triple flowers of a very light pink that tends towards white. It is a real favorite and one of the most available Russian lilacs on the market.
The ‘Znamya Lenina’ Lilac
It means Lenin’s banner. The large clusters of flowers are a beautiful and of a fairly intense purple pink. You can see a fine specimen of this variety in the Museum of Lilacs, located in Saint-Georges, in Beauce, Canada.
The Lilac of Hope, ‘Nadezda’
It is also called the ‘Hope’ lilac. Here, the flowers are semi-double, and they originate in a dark mauve flower bud that opens into light lilac flowers. The flower clusters are particularly large. Like most Russian lilacs, this one reaches about 4 meters in height.
See Lilacs, Russian or Not
In Quebec, it is possible to stroll through several lilac collections, such as that of the Museum of Lilacs. June is the perfect month to discover lilac collections. The Montreal Botanical Garden and the Cap-à-l’Aigle Gardens in Charlevoix are also two great places to discover Russian lilacs and other interesting varieties.
In short, if, during a visit to the garden centre, you come across a lilac with an unpronounceable name… buy it without hesitation! It will be a very good purchase. Moreover, it is the same with clematis of Polish origin. But that’s another story!