Gilding the Lilac

A new hybrid could kill the nostalgia for these fleeting blooms of spring.

People who love lilacs know a certain urgency, for the flowers don’t last long. At the nursery where I’ve worked on and off for seven years, there are always customers who reliably march in during the spring on a lilac mission. When I show them to the lilac aisle—the store usually carries a few of the hundreds of known varieties—customers tend to sniff them with eyes closed, swoon, and say something like, “My mother had these.” I know what they mean. My mother had them, too. When I was a kid, we had a lilac out back that was 20 feet high and probably a good deal older than my mother herself. Cutting the flowers was a certified rite of spring. So I can attest that when lilacs bloom, so do vague but welcome memories.

Half the charm of a lilac is its inebriating smell, which often catches you before you even see its great torches of little purple, pink, or white blossoms popping open against heart-shaped leaves. But the other half of the flower’s charm lies in its transience. The lilac, part of the olive family, seems to bloom for about 15 minutes a year, on the cool-warm threshold of midspring. (Actually, it sticks around for a couple of weeks.) Its cameo aspect can be maddening, but that’s all part of the romance.

Even more maddening is word of a new lilac, called the Bloomerang, that’s hitting the market this year with a promise to bloom from spring on through to the fall, right up until the first frost. One mail-order Web site calls it “a flower machine for 4 months or more every year!” In the annals of plant novelties that cheapen gardening for the sake of enriching it, I can’t think of anything so dumb. When you can have any flower whenever you want it, that’s not gardening. That’s shopping.

I came across a mention of the Bloomerang recently in the January/February issue of the American Gardener, in which writer Doreen Howard describes receiving a Bloomerang plant last year to try out in advance of its release to retailers. She got the lilac from its creator, Tim Wood, a plant propagator at Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Haven, Mich. “Mine was still in full bloom on October 27 when it snowed,” Howard wrote. The Bloomerang is a relative dwarf that tops out at about 4 feet high, she added, and “[t]he dark pink panicles are lush and fragrant.”

The Bloomerang seems to keep its promises—good smell, fine color, and longevity. But who wants a lilac up the nose when they’d otherwise be carving pumpkins? A lot of people, apparently. The plant is supposed to arrive in stores this fall, but good luck getting one. Two mail-order carriers, White Flower Farm and Wayside Gardens, are already sold out of Bloomerangs. On the Internet, garden message boards and blogs are starting to burn with inquiries after the Bloomerang appeared in a recent Better Homes & Gardens issue. I’ve learned the plant has possible drawbacks, such as a susceptibility to mildew and blight, like other lilacs. You’re supposed to prune off the top one-third after the spring bloom to get a good flush of flowers later on. But even with these handicaps, the thing will sell like crazy.

These sorts of wish-fulfillment plants always sell well. The Bloomerang lilac is but the latest innovation, or affront, by plant tinkerers who can’t leave some things well enough alone. A couple of years ago, nurseries began selling a new line of fluffy, mop-headed hydrangeas called Endless Summer. It’s become a monster brand because it keeps on blooming beyond its first late-spring surge and blooms on new stems, unlike traditional mop-headed hydrangeas. But I’ve seen that, also unlike older hydrangea types, the flowers of Endless Summer rot in the rain like geraniums, so you have to cut them off to keep the plant looking good. I call this Endless Labor.

The hallowed world of roses, too, changed forever in 2000 with the introduction of the Knockout line of shrub roses, which bloom without much human effort from spring to fall, a holy grail to some rose nuts. It even claims to be “self-cleaning,” like an oven. No deadheading! The problem is, they don’t smell like much.

There seems to be a dictum taking hold among plant hybridizers that goes: Just because we can doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Hybridizers have come up with all kinds of marvelous new sizes, shapes, colors, and traits for plants; repackaged and rebranded them; and made them wildly popular. And, often, enjoyable. One of my favorites is a hybrid of the Southern magnolia called Little Gem that stays compact and—crucially—doesn’t drop leaves by the bale all over your garden. But as much as I love lilacs, I’m not buying the Bloomerang. It corrupts the humbling tension of waiting months and months for rewards in the garden and thinking they’re well-deserved.

Click here to view a slide show on plant hybrids gone wild.