Ever-blooming lilac wars

Class divisions are emerging with the arrival of a new lilac. It’s seen as either a garish freak or a great innovation.

Ever-blooming lilac warsThe Bloomerang lilac won’t be available at your local nursery until next spring, but already it’s a sensation among the gardening cognoscenti. True to its cutesy name, the dynamo dwarf shrub upends lilac logic by flowering in early spring, again in summer, then reblooming as the leaves turn—a hybridizing innovation that can be viewed as wondrous or as horrifying. The American plant-breeding behemoth Proven Winners Plants is banking on the public’s desire for lilacs 24/7; it launched the Bloomerang in the spring of 2008 with the sort of fanfare that usually accompanies summer action flicks. Plants were sent out to gardening writers across the continent with the hope they’d produce rave reviews. Spring Meadow Nursery of Grand Haven, Mich., offered the hybrid in limited supply, as did several mail order companies. It sold out immediately, with thwarted prospective buyers clamouring to be put on waiting lists.

The arrival of a reblooming lilac has drawn a fresh line in the soil between the old and the new gardening guard. Those who eagerly await the species’ fragrant flowering as a harbinger of spring find the prospect of lilacs blooming again in September akin to watching a burlesque dancer perform the same act into her dotage—untimely and kind of creepy. Beaverton, Ont.-based horticulturalist Stephen Westcott-Gratton, an editor-at-large at Canadian Gardening, was offered a Bloomerang but turned it down. He acknowledges the species signals a revolution in lilac breeding. But as a serious gardener he embraces “sequence of bloom,” the hard-wired gardening tenet that a good garden is meticulously mapped to evolve with the seasons, no repeats allowed. “The whole point of living in a climate like this is the change of season, and each fraction of the change in season brings new plants,” he says, observing that he has little interest in sniffing lilacs as frost approaches. “I don’t know how I feel about colours like that and fragrance like that in the autumn,” he says. “I don’t even like autumn crocuses.” (Wescott-Gratton even has his issues with the Preston lilac, a variety that blooms a few weeks after the common Syringa. “It seems out of season even at that point in the year,” he explains.) He also isn’t fond of the Bloomerang’s lavender-blue flowers, which he describes as “kind of boring; like the common lilac, but not so deep.”

Nursery worker Bradford McKee expressed even more outrage in a very amusing post on, railing that the arrival of a hybrid that one website described as “a flower machine for four months or more every year!” will ruin what we traditionally think of as lilac season: “In the annals of plant novelties that cheapen gardening for the sake of enriching it, I can’t think of anything so dumb,” he fumed.

Not all plant people are so vexed. Thomas Hobbs, the Vancouver-based gardening writer and owner of Southlands Nursery Ltd., is charmed by the idea of the Bloomerang, though he has yet to see the shrub: “I think it’s wonderful. I’d love to see lilacs twice a year,” he says.

Gardening maven and author Marjorie Harris was also willing to give the Bloomerang a go. She planted two in her downtown Toronto garden last year and deems them “adorable,” with reservation: “They were very pretty in lilac season,” she reports. “And I assume that if I do a little nipping and pruning, they’ll bloom again sometime in summertime.” Still, the concept is “kind of weird,” she says: “It’s discombobulating to have plants bloom out of what I think is their season.”

Love it or loathe it, the Bloomerang is the latest symbol of the brave new world of gardening—a landscape of hybridized plants that rebloom, “self-clean” (eliminating the need to deadhead) and do pretty much everything but fertilize themselves, though that too is probably in the works. The plant is destined to join Knockout roses and Endless Summer hydrangeas, two monster brands that extend their species’ blooming seasons, sort of like the flora equivalent of cosmetic surgery.

Proven Winners, the Bloomerang’s creator, has spurred much of the innovation. Established in 1992 by three U.S. plant propagators, the Sycamore, Ill.-based US$500-million enterprise is renowned for breeding low-maintainance, disease-resistant, “performance” plants sold at nurseries and garden centres throughout North America. Its popular high-octane petunias, known as “Supertunias,” self-clean like an oven. This spring, the company introduced the “first true dwarf buddleia” which attracts butterflies and self-cleans.

Even McKee, who savages the Bloomerang, concedes that hybridizing has yielded “marvellous new sizes, shapes, colours, and traits for plants,” a distinction somewhat like someone saying “I’d never have Botox, but tooth whitening is fine.” The southern magnolia hybrid Little Gem is one of his favourites, he writes, because it “stays compact and—crucially—doesn’t drop leaves by the bale all over your garden.” Hobbs is another fan of hybridizing. “It’s not a scary thing; it’s a good thing,” he says. He likes twice-blooming bearded irises: “Double your value; double your reward,” he says.

Erin McLaughlin, the editor of Canadian Gardener, regards hybridization as a boon for novice gardeners seeking easier-to-care-for plants who aren’t concerned with varietal authenticity. She compares reblooming hybrids to store-bought pesto. “They’re like a prepared ingredient rather than something you make from scratch,” she says. It’s not “cheating,” she contends: “Instead of cajoling plants, we’re given more sophisticated offerings that can make for a happier garden. If you have repeat bloomers—roses, clematis, lilacs—you can have that sensation for a longer time, especially in our really, really short growing season in Canada.”

Reblooming plants’ ability to do double duty is part of their appeal for many novice gardeners who expect horticulture to work overtime and to provide value, says Proven Winners’ marketing director Marshall Dirks. “People want more from their plants,” he says. Never has the company marketed a plant as vigorously as it is marketing the Bloomerang, he says. “The name is fantastic. And people love lilacs.”

The reason people love lilacs, of course, is because of their temporal timetable. Their first (and only) flowering is greeted with joy, tinged by the knowledge it will be fleeting, poetically so; no one has ever complained of being bored by lilacs. Tamper with that and you hit a primal nerve, as the Bloomerang clearly has.

Yet demand for the plant also reveals a culture in which a desire for instant (and repeated) gratification and convenience has extended into the garden. McKee upholds the Bloomerang as a symbol of the rampant commercialization of gardening: “When you can have any flower whenever you want it, that’s not gardening. That’s shopping,” he writes. But he views its arrival as even more pernicious than that. Not only does the plant muddle once-sacrosanct lilac season, it undermines the fundamental gardening tenet that patience and hard work are rewarded: “It corrupts the humbling tension of waiting months and months for rewards in the garden and thinking they’re well-deserved,” McKee writes.

Within the gardening hierarchy, the Bloomerang’s arrival has heightened class divisions. Marjorie Harris makes the distinction between “plant people” and “decorators,” noting that many people now view their garden as a room to be fashionably appointed. For them, the Bloomerang might offer the perfect accent, like a throw pillow: “Maybe for some people a lilac colour in August is going to look great because you don’t see that colour in a lot of other things.” Westcott-Gratton believes the plant could have a place in smaller balcony gardens: “Or if it’s in a container and used as a focal point that needs always to be in bloom,” he says.

He believes the Bloomerang, which can be grown in zones 3 through 7 and costs US$19.95, will be a tough sell to hard-core gardeners. “There’s definite snobbery,” he says. “Rock Garden Society types and real plant-aholics are turned on by something more subtle, by plants that are seen to be untampered by man’s hands and more perfect because of that.” The hoi polloi, meanwhile, is lining up with competitor reblooming lilacs such as “Josee” and “Miss Kim” also hitting the market. Which means that lilac season, once a poignant, transient rite of spring, is destined to be up our noses all summer long.

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