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Lilacs and Living Collections

May 26, 2021

By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Canada has produced several notable lilac hybridizers over the years. When it comes to female lilac breeders, many afficionados will wax lyrical about Isabella Preston, likely Canada’s first female plant hybridizer. She had an interest in roses, lilies, irises, and crabapples, but is best known for introducing Preston lilacs, a group specially bred for the cold climate of Canada.

Black and white photo of Joan Brown standing in front of a tree
Joan Brown, ca. 1974

A hybridizer who is perhaps less well known, is former RBG staff member Joan Brown. Joan trained in plant sciences at the University of Toronto and plant genetics at the University of Guelph. She joined our staff in 1974 as our first official plant breeder, an appointment that was thanks to the Palmer Memorial Trust, established by Dr. E. F. Palmer of Vineland Research Station. He provided funding to support plant breeding programs at RBG. Joan was given the challenge of breeding superior plants of ornamental value with an emphasis on lilacs, roses, witch-hazels and hydrangeas.

In the late 1960s, our plant taxonomist, Dr. Jim Pringle, had been encouraged to make several interesting crosses of lilacs, and Joan continued this work for the next several years under his mentorship. By 1975 she was busy with her own hybridization efforts and crossed the French Hybrid lilac cultivars ‘Primrose’ and ‘St Joan’. This resulted in some exceptional white lilacs described as having large florets and flower clusters. In 1987, one of these, with the seedling number ‘Brown No. 7524-107’ showed great promise and was registered with the International Lilac Registrar, Freek Vrugtman, the former Curator of Collections here at RBG. The given name of the cultivar was Syringa vulgaris ‘McMaster Centennial’. This name was chosen to mark the centenary of  McMaster University in 1987. The cultivar name was established and accepted, designating the cultivar to be a double white French Hybrid lilac, fragrant with a mid- season bloom time around about the third week of May at RBG. In 1993 a second lilac, this time with the seedling number Brown No. 7525-17, was also selected for registration. The given name of this cultivar was Syringa vulgaris ‘Father John’ and the name was again established and accepted. This lilac was a cross between the cultivars ‘Rochester’ and ‘Primrose’, producing a French Hybrid lilac with single white flowers. The cultivar name, ‘Father John’, recognized Father John Leopold Fiala (1924-1990) from Medina, Ohio. He was a priest, teacher, scientist and a great plant expert who had been fascinated by lilacs as a young man. Fr. Fiala was a founding member of the International Lilac Society and introduced more than 50 lilac cultivars. Like ‘McMaster Centennial’, ‘Father John’ is a mid-season bloomer and has been described as being exceptionally showy and excellent.

White lilac blooms

Syringa vulgaris ‘McMaster Centennial’

White lilac blooms

Syringa vulgaris ‘Father John’

Joan Brown left RBG in 1981 and was succeeded by Hugh Pearson, but sadly the plant breeding and selection program had been terminated by 1992. This meant an end to the registration of plants and new lilac introductions by RBG staff. ‘McMaster Centennial’ and ‘Father John’ are no longer easy to find in commerce and so remain unusual additions to specialist botanical garden or private lilac collections.

So why does this matter? Living collections such as those found here at RBG are like living reference libraries where plants in a genus can be grouped, displayed, compared and researched. Humans, since early times, have been inventive in breeding and selecting new plants for food, medicine, commerce and in the case of lilacs, beauty and scent. The hybridization of ornamental plants involves vast human effort in the science and art of horticulture. If plants such as the lilacs hybridized by Joan Brown cease to be grown, they are often lost from human memory and so we lose part of our collective cultural history. Ornamental plants in botanical collections are artefacts in the same way paintings, sculptures, texts or other objects that capture human spirit, progress and endeavour are displayed in museums.  They capture our botanical lineage, our notions of beautification and the rich legacy of our combined human condition.

The next time you are sniffing your favourite flower in the lilac collection, take a moment to contemplate the plants displayed in the living collections that don’t just look or smell great. They are a representation of the rich diversity of human culture and by conserving such germplasm, helpful in the fight against environmental challenges such as climate change, poverty, or, in the beautification of degraded anthropogenic landscapes. Beyond the beauty of the cultivated landscape, this provides a snapshot of the value of botanic gardens and the living collections they manage for the benefit of humanity and future health of our planet. Happy lilac time!

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