Voluptuous Sunday

Exhibitionist lilacs

Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum in 1926
<i>Syringa</i> x <i>chinensis</i> ‘Lilac Sunday’, developed by the arboretum’s plant propagator John H. Alexander III

They ravish the eye. They intoxicate the nose. For more than a century, susceptible folk have come in mid May to a “Lilac Sunday” festival at the Arnold Arboretum to revel in one of North America’s oldest and largest collections of lilacs. (The ladies above are taking them in in 1926.) Grouped together today are more than 375 lilac bushes of 180 kinds. They include both pure species and nearly 140 cultivars, plants selected and named because of certain horticultural merits—color, scent, flower size, or habit of growth.

Although lilacs have adorned the American landscape for many years—George Washington and Thomas Jefferson write of planting them—like most of us they are not native here. Of the 20-plus species, two come from Europe, the rest from Asia. The common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, is an East European. It was so energetically grown and selected by French nurserymen that that country earned a reputation for fine lilacs, the so-called French hybrids. Now Russian, American, and Canadian hybridizers have joined the party.

In 1978, John H. Alexander III, plant propagator of the Arnold Arboretum, searched a list of seed offered for sharing by the Botanical Garden of the Chinese Botanical Academy in Beijing. On it was a lilac; it was of uncertain identity, but Alexander wanted to grow it anyway. He sent for the seed and planted it in Boston the next year. Eighteen seeds germinated. One of the resulting plants turned out to be exceptional, and he introduced it as Syringa x chinensis ‘Lilac Sunday’. “With the number of lilac cultivars approaching a thousand,” he wrote in a 1997 issue of the arboretum’s magazine Arnoldia, “the decision to add yet another can’t be taken lightly, even though…S. x chinensis can claim less than 20 cultivars.” Alexander selected ‘Lilac Sunday’ for its fragrance, color, abundance of flower, and especially its growth habit: it produces flower panicles not only at the branch tips, like the common lilac, but along the stems, weighing the arching branches down with blossom. ‘Lilac Sunday’ struts its stuff above left. Get the full impact—scheduled this year for Mother’s Day, May 13—at the one-hundred-and-fourth Lilac Sunday.

Read more articles by: Christopher Reed

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

An Orphaned Sewing Machine

The multifaceted global and interdisciplinary impact of a useful object

Harvard Discloses Top Earners

The annual report details administrators’ and endowment investment managers’ compensation.

Photograph of Humsa Venkatesh in her lab

The Brain-Cancer Link

Growth-stimulating crosstalk between the brain and cancer tumors presents a new target for therapy.

More to explore

Michael Hill in a Marlins quarter zip

Leading with Care

Michael Hill strikes the right balance.

illustration of robotic hands manipulating a wooden maze to guide a worm in the maze to a target

Computational Control of a Living Brain?

How an AI agent learned to guide an animal to food—and what it might mean for Parkinson’s patients.

Naomi Bashkansky sits on a table with a chess board behind her.

Strategic Planning

A chess player’s moves on AI safety