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The Lilac Breeders

In Troyes, France, the Baltet Nursery, founded in 1720, bred lilacs between 1842 and 1900, deriving the renowned Ville de Troyes, DeCroncels, Lucie Baltet, and Blenatre. French plant breeder Pierre Louis Victor Lemoine would use Blenatre in his work. DeCroncels, a dwarf with deep pink flowers, is the parent of Lucie Baltet. The latter remains a popular cultivar. Nurseryman Pierre Cochet of Suisnes, France, selected from Syringa vulgaris the cultivars Philemon (1840), a dark purple lilac that won the First Class Award in 1855; Clare Cochet (1855), a pink cultivar; and Scipion Cochet (circa 1872), a purple cultivar. All three remain in cultivation today.

Victor Lemoine is among the luminaries of lilac breeding. Around 1870, he was perhaps the first to hybridize lilacs. Because of poor eyesight, he enlisted the aid of his wife, Marie Louise Anna Lemoine. She did the actual work of transferring pollen from the anthers of one species to the stigma of a second. The pair obtained their first hybrid in 1876, which they named Syringa hybrida hyacinthiflora plens. Although a breeder is permitted to name a new cultivar, the Lemoines’ name violated Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature and has been renamed Syringa X hyacinthiflora to reflect its status as a hybrid. The plant has double, blue flowers, which bloom early and are fragrant. Son Emile and grandson Henri continued the work of hybridizing lilacs until the family closed its nursery in 1955. The Lemoine family bred more than 200 cultivars, among them President Grevy (1886), Mme. Lemoine (1890), Belle de Nancy (1891), Charles Joly (1896), Leon Gambetta (1907), Miss Ellen Willmott (1903), and Paul Thirion (1915).

In the 1890s, Scottish immigrant John Dunbar planted a lilac garden in Highland Park in Rochester, New York, now the site of an annual lilac festival. Among Dunbar’s successes were the blue-purple President Lincoln (1916), General Sherman (1917), President Roosevelt (1919)—named for Theodore rather than Franklin Roosevelt—Adelaide Dunbar (1916), and Joan Dunbar (1923). Breeder Alvin Grant, working at Highland Park, derived Rochester in 1971. Horticulturist Richard Fenicchia, also at Highland Park, selected Dwight D. Eisenhower and Flower City.

In the 1920s, Isabella Preston, a scientist at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Canada, was among the first female lilac breeders. She derived what are known as the Preston lilacs in her honor. These include Syringa X prestonia, a tall, late-flowering, disease-resistant, hardy hybrid, and the cultivars Desdemona and Juliet, named for Shakespearean characters. The Royal Botanical Garden in Ontario, Canada, and the Central Experimental Farm maintain collections of Preston lilacs.

A cattle rancher from Manitoba, Canada, Frank L. Skinner, taught himself to breed plants. Concentrating on lilac, he bred a series of “American lilacs,” among them the cultivar Maiden’s Blush and hybrids derived from Lemoine’s Syringa X hyacinthiflora. His work earned Skinner the moniker “Luther Burbank of Canada.” The Skinner Nursery in Roblin, Manitoba, sells his lilacs, though it will ship only to Canadian gardeners. Skinner’s brother-in-law, William Cumming of the Agriculture Canada Experiment Station in Morden, Manitoba, bred the cultivars Minuet and Miss Canada, the latter known as the Pink Lilac.

Christopher Cumo

Further Reading

Bennett, Jennifer. Lilacs for the Garden. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2002.

Fiala, John L. Lilacs: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2008.

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