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Home-Grown Lilacs--He's a Believer

May 17, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

It seems that lilacs do grow, and flower, in Southern California.

A few weeks ago, while writing about other back-East plants, I mentioned that I had never seen a handsome, healthy lilac, outside of the chilly high desert or Descanso Gardens, which is situated in a cool canyon bottom dotted with oaks.

"Perhaps someone will send me a snapshot of his or her lilacs, and I'll become a believer," I wrote, "but until then, I'll continue to think that lilacs look great beside a granite doorstep in New Hampshire but are a poor choice next to a d.g. (decomposed granite) path in Southern California."

Donna Potts from South Pasadena answered my challenge:

"I read your lilac challenge last Sunday and would like to pick up the gauntlet."

She sent photos of a bush in full bloom, and peeking over the garage behind was the top a palm tree, so I knew these photos weren't surreptitiously taken in New Hampshire.

"I have a great lilac in my typical California garden," she continued, "no decomposed granite path though. I do not know the specific variety, but they have a delightful fragrance.

"You are welcome to come over and see it with your own eyes and assure yourself that we can grow everything in Southern California."

The picture she enclosed is very pretty, but South Pasadena's not that far from Descanso Gardens.

However, the next letter I opened was from a reader in Rancho Palos Verdes. E.A. Trabin wrote that they've had lilacs blooming in their garden for the last 15 years.

The Palos Verdes peninsula is a long way from Descanso, a completely different coastal climate.

Another photo came from the Turski family in Venice, also a coastal community, of a very young plant in bloom.

From Valencia in the Santa Clarita Valley, Pete Colato wrote:

"Read your article whilst sitting in the garden admiring the neighbor's lilacs in full flower. Having lived in the East, I am well acquainted with lilacs, and these are as beautiful as any back there."

He also sent photos of lilacs hanging over the neighbor's fence.

More photos came from Larry and Helen Merken in Chatsworth, of a bush in full flower that was nearly as tall as their chimney.

And from West Covina, Ruth Midyett sent photos of a big, handsome bush that is 25 years old. Readers in Glendora, Reseda and Thousand Oaks also sent photos.

And Nancy Lewis, who lives in Arcadia near the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, sent a photo of a lilac covered with blossoms. Her plant is the original Descanso hybrid 'Lavender Lady.'

Of all the lilacs, these hybrids are supposed to do best in Southern California. Other Descanso hybrids for mild climates include 'White Chiffon,' 'Spring in Descanso,' 'Mrs. Forrest K. Smith,' 'Descanso Giant,' 'Sylvan Beauty,' 'Pride of the Guild' and 'King of Descanso.'

I suspect that most of the lilacs in the photos were 'Lavender Lady'--since it is the most common at nurseries--or one of these others.

Descanso Gardens was also quick to comment on my article. Rudy Schaffer, the volunteer curator of the lilac collection, suggested that my friend's lilac, mentioned in my article, did poorly because of watering, not weather.

He said the key to getting flowers on the mild-climate lilacs like 'Lavender Lady' is to stop watering them after Sept. 15, letting them live on rainfall alone. This applies only to plants that have been in the ground for two or three years.

This drying out forces dormancy, which makes for good flowers. Resume watering when the first leaf or flower buds begin to open in spring.

For this reason, if you're planting a new lilac, don't put it near lawns or shrubs that need irrigation in winter.

He had other suggestions on how to get the most from a lilac in Southern California:

* When lilacs finish blooming, cut off the old flower spikes so seed pods can't form. If they do, they'll cause the lilac to bloom poorly the next year.

* Prune and thin plants older than 3 years when they finish blooming. Pruning also enhances flowering, he said.

* Begin the pruning by taking out twiggy growth. Then prune out any growth sprouting from the ground that is thinner than a pencil. Also prune out a few of the oldest, tallest canes that sprout from the ground, those that are 3 to 4 inches thick or more.

This will keep the plant from growing too tall (so you are no longer able to smell the flowers), while encouraging the young, vigorous canes that will make more flowers.

* Don't prune after June 30.

* You should also fertilize plants about mid-May with a 10-10-10 fertilizer or similar type, and then put a thin mulch around the plants to conserve summer moisture and keep the roots cool.

* Fertilize one last time with a 6-10-10 (if you want more growth) or 0-10-10 mixture or something similar in late June.

* Don't fertilize lilacs after the end of June.

Lilac fanciers can get a new handout on planting and caring for lilacs in Southern California at Descanso Gardens.

I'll pass this information along to the friend who was trying to grow lilacs in Beverly Hills, and I guess I'm now a believer.

The clincher came from Monrovia Nursery Co. I had always assumed that this wholesale grower raised its lilacs at its Oregon facility. But the nursery grows its lilacs in Azusa.

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