A lesson from Miss Kim: Give other lilac species a try

Lee Reich via AP

This undated photo shows Miss Kim lilac growing in New Paltz, N.Y. Miss Kim lilac is one of a number of species of lilac that differ from, and are worth growing in addition to or instead of the usual Common Lilac.

The problem with Miss Kim is she doesn't look like what you might expect. She's a lilac (Syringa patula), but not what we usually think of as a lilac.

Miss Kim, who is from north China and Korea, is a different species from the lilac we know in the U.S., called, appropriately, common lilac (S. vulgaris), and hailing from southern Europe. She looks and acts differently from, and is in many ways better than, her common lilac cousin.

A BETTER FIT FOR SMALLER SPACES

For one thing, Miss Kim is a compact shrub, often billed as growing only 3 feet high and wide. In fact, she's capable of growing 8 to 10 feet. That's still substantially smaller than common lilacs, which, left to their own devices, swell to 20-foot behemoths. My own Miss Kim is 5 feet high, in her third year, and still growing strongly.

So for smaller yards or more intimate spaces, Miss Kim might be the lilac of choice.

And rather than creating an arching fountain of stems, leaves, and flowers, Miss Kim presents a dense, rounded mass of greenery and flowers. Her leaves are also smaller than those of the common lilac and, with their rippling surfaces, lend an unlilac-like look to the shrub.

Miss Kim also looks decidedly unlilac-like in summer, when her leaves retain their healthy green color rather than being marred by the powdery mildew disease that attacks common lilac (but does those plants no particular harm). In autumn, as common lilac's leaves drop with little fanfare, Miss Kim's leaves turn reddish burgundy.

FLOWERS DIFFER ALSO

Face it: We grow lilacs mainly for their flowers. In this respect, Miss Kim is similar to her Occidental cousin. Her blooms, which open two weeks or more after those of the common lilac, have more white in them, giving them a pleasantly icy appearance.

The flowers, like those of common lilac, are fragrant. Not to my nose deliciously so though because they have more of the aroma of privet (a lilac relative). For some reason, Miss Kim changes once she comes indoors, however, then becoming pleasantly and strongly fragrant, with even a single cluster of blossoms perfuming a whole room.

OTHER LILACS WORTH GROWING

Miss Kim is not the only lilac that is unlilac-like. There's also the so-called early lilac (S. oblata) from Korea, which, besides blooming early, has loose panicles of flowers and nice autumn leaf color.

Japanese tree lilac (S. reticulata) is -- what can I say? -- from Japan and a tree, developing a hefty, single trunk and blooming a couple of weeks after common lilacs. The branches become smothered in frothy, white blooms which, unfortunately, smell very much like privet blooms.

Meyer lilac, from northern China, is unlilac-like in that its blooms develop all along the stems, covering the entire shrub from top to bottom.

Cutleaf lilac, from western China, is notable for having finely lobed leaves that give the whole bush a lacy texture.

All these unlilac-like lilacs have qualities that make them worth growing not instead of but in addition to the common lilac which, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, is itself the unlilac-like lilac.

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