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GARDENING

Lilacs Need to Catch a Chill to Grow Well

March 08, 1997|KAREN DARDICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The sweet scent of lilacs wafting through the landscape is synonymous with spring for many people who were raised in the Eastern or Midwestern regions of the nation. Transplanted to Orange County, many such gardeners have tried to recapture pleasant memories by planting lilac shrubs, only to watch them die or refuse to bloom.

The problem is that most varieties of Syringa vulgaris, common lilacs, require more chilling than this region's mild winters can provide.

The best chance for success with lilacs is to select those varieties developed in Southern California that are dubbed "low-chill lilacs."

"Even those can be problematic because they still need some chilling in winter, and most of Orange County can't provide it," said Steve Carr of Hines Nursery in Irvine, a wholesale grower of shrubs and other perennials.

"Syringas aren't ideal because they also don't do well in alkaline soil, which is so prevalent here," he added.

But he held out hope for those die-hards determined to try their luck with these deciduous shrubs of hauntingly sweet flowers.

The secret is in the variety, although Carr points out that, when winters are especially warm--as this one has been--even these varieties will flower stingily.

He recommends 'Lavender Lady,' a top-selling variety that bears lavender-colored flowers in late February to mid-March; California Rose, less sensitive to alkaline soil and doesn't require as much chill as 'Lavender Lady'; 'Sylvan Beauty,' which produces rose-lavender flowers; and 'Angel White,' with pure white flowers.

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This is the best time to select lilacs because they are in flower or bud now, and nurseries are likely to stock them at this time of year.

Plant your choice in the coolest part of your garden. Select a site that gets at least six hours of sunlight. Inland, provide light shade as protection against the hot afternoon sun.

Lilacs require fast-draining soil. Amend the planting hole with mulch or organic material and place the shrub in the hole at the same soil line that was in the container, or even slightly above. For the first year, water the shrub deeply at least once a week, except during rainy or cool weather.

"A problem arises when people plant their shrubs or trees near their lawn," Carr said. "The sprinklers are usually geared to the lawn, so the shrubs get over watered."

Carr recommends deep, infrequent soaking once the lilac shrub is established. Flower production won't begin for several years, as the shrub acclimates itself to the landscape.

If landscaping with common lilacs seems too chancy, there are other choices that can evoke the mood, if not the fragrance, of Syringa.

Ceanothus, commonly called wild lilac, are evergreen ground covers, small shrubs, or small trees native to California. While not true lilacs, they are dubbed wild lilac because their flowers resemble Syringa. Blooming in colors ranging from white through all shades of blue and deep violet, they thrive in our climate.

"The only downside is that they lack the fragrance of true lilacs, but they're much easier to grow," Carr said.

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Jeff Bohn, co-owner of Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, agrees. The nursery, which specializes in California native plants, grows and sells more than 30 varieties of Ceanothus, ranging from ground covers to moderate size shrubs of 4 to 6 feet, up to large shrubs of 12 feet with an equal size spread.

"By planting different varieties of Ceanothus in a landscape, you can have flowering from early spring through summer," Bohn said.

Even when flowering ends and seedpods form, Bohn regards them as attractive. "They're nice plants in a landscape because they have deep green foliage that always looks good."

He claims to detect fragrance from the flowers but admits "it's subtle."

For success with Ceanothus, it's crucial to avoid over watering. They can readily succumb to a root rot, a situation that doesn't occur in the wild because they thrive on the winter rain pattern of this region.

Select a location in your garden that isn't watered by irrigation. Water by hose only during the first dry season. After that, the plant will thrive on water provided by nature.

Bohn recommends applying a moderate amount of granular fertilizer, one-half the recommended rate, in fall of the plant's first year in the landscape. He also suggests applying a layer of mulch in late spring to protect the plant from summer heat and conserve water.

The aura of lilacs can be extended into summer and fall with the addition of summer lilac, Buddleia davidii, also called butterfly bush because the nectar-laden flowers are irresistible to many butterflies.

B. davidii are deciduous or semi-evergreen shrubs that grow quickly to heights of 6 to 10 feet, depending on variety. Fragrant flowers in colors ranging from purple and blue to lilac, pink and white, appear in dense, arching clusters in summer through fall. B. asiatica produces masses of white, honey-scented flowers in winter.

Buddleia also require excellent drainage, full sun and very moderate watering. They grow so quickly that many landscapers manage their growth by cutting them by half or more each fall, after flowering ends. They quickly regrow in February and March.

"Buddleia provide a softer look because their foliage is a pleasant gray-green," Carr said. "They lend themselves perfectly to Southern California and look nice almost year-round. They're great for butterflies too."

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