Good things this (last) week & the treasure of Nancy

Where am I at? No idea. Why did I post a ‘Wordless Wednesday’ on a Tuesday morning, only to add something for my normal Sunday evening post on Tuesday night? Personally, I think this is a symptom of my confusing lifestyle in France. More of that later.

Meanwhile, back to the programme…January anniversary 407

Did you catch my two posts about my School Project? Growing hyacinths bulbs in water seemed very exciting. I was going to take pictures every week. And then my enthusiasm went off the boil a bit … I think this must have been a premonition that all was not well with my two little bulbs. Purchased from Lidl in November, they never lived up to their promise. This is – believe it or not – a picture of one at blooming perfection. It never really managed to clamber out from its little nest of foliage before the flowers started to dry up slightly. The second is doing the same – if anything it’s even smaller. January anniversary 361 There was a waft of scent for about a week in January, but nothing much. On first sight in the shop I thought the bulbs looked rather small and wizened – I purchased them late in the day when they’d probably been hanging around in the shop saying, ‘Choose me’, for a little too long. Any ideas? I’ll try again next year.

charlesjolyMoving swiftly on: more ‘from me to me’ plants. I live about two hours from Nancy where the redoubtable nineteenth century nurseryman, Victor Lemoine, started his nursery in 1849. He is perhaps best known for his double lilacs and bred over 200 named cultivars. The Americans still call these modern forms ‘French lilacs’, a fine tribute to the impact his hybridising programme made on the flourishing horticultural world of the late nineteenth century.


He was the first foreigner to received the Veitch medal from the RHS. The nursery was only closed by Victor’s grandson in 1960 and I believe there is now a school of horticulture on the site. I’m quite excited to visit this year, since he has definitely become one of my heroes (I’ve always wanted to run a nursery myself).

Nancy at that period was a wealthy town with a thriving textile industry and apparently its mercantile population supported as many as 13 horticulturists, 4 nurseries and 40 market gardens in this heyday – maybe by British standards that’s not impressive, but if you were sitting here, right now, where I’m sitting, your jaw would be dropping …

I have a small love affair with lilacs because they remind me of the house of my Canadian grandmother (a great gardener), where I lived for a couple of years when I was small. My grandparents were fruit farmers with quite a lot of land, but it is the steps descending from the kitchen into the garden, shrouded in lilacs, that are my most enduring memory. She and that scent are inextricably entwined.

Apparently lilacs were taken to the New World by the colonists who planted them for luck around the door when they threw up a new homestead. In Scotland we plant rowan – same difference. Lilacs are not the most beautiful shrubs when out of flower, but our garden is large and my memories strong, so I’m hoping to add quite a few. In the first year I purchased purple-red ‘Charles Joly’ (picture above, introduced to the world 1896). He thrives here now, although it was touch and go when his toes were eaten by voles. ‘Madame Lemoine’ went in at the same time.

Apparently Victor suffered from failing eyesight in his late forties and was increasingly unable to do the delicate work of pollination essential to the hybridising programme he commenced in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War (his most important crosses were between S. vulgaris and S. oblata, if you are interested). His wife, Marie-Louise, took over and the superb (not yet superb here!) white cultivar, ‘Madame Lemoine’, was named for her. Her portrait is below, introduced 1890. I love having real people living in my garden. Edelflieder 'Mme Lemoine' - Syringa vulgaris 'Mme Lemoine' This year I’ve purchased another of Victor Lemoine’s cultivars for the Hornbeam Gardens. ‘Belle de Nancy’ Belle%20de%20Nancy%20Lilac(left) was introduced in 1891 and will be much more the normal deep mauve lilac colour, unlike redder ‘Charles Joly’, but double, fully double, so still one of the lush French hybrids. Another ‘from me to me’ present back in November was Syringa ‘Primrose’ (below). As far as I am aware this has nothing to do with Victor Lemoine’s nursery. Do let me know if I am wrong?

But it has everything to do with my brief time with the Notcutts’ landscaping team in Woodbridge, Suffolk. I was elbowed sideways there by a wide guy with a bigger mouth than mine, but in the interim I learned to love this lilac, thanks to some of the pots in the garden centre that I walked through every day. Syringa_'Primrose'_03 Those days are not happy memories, thanks to the Notcutts’ management, but there are some golden images lingering in my mind’s eye, among them Syringa ‘Primrose’ (and Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. oxycarpa ‘Raywood’ – but that’s another story). I’m really looking forward to growing ‘Primrose’ in my own garden for the first time. What can you say – a creamy yellow lilac? It’s got to be good for vases with ‘Charles Joly’, never mind anything else.

The final lilac I have chosen this year is Syringa pubescens subsp patula ‘Miss Kim’.

Miss_KimNow what I was really after was Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’. I think I met ‘Palibin’ first at Branklyn Gardens, Perthshire. Branklyn is near where I come from and last summer I went back to worship the original plant again. Unfortunately the name on the label was not as remembered … I think/hope this is indicative of the fact that I am behind the times with horticultural nomenclature (rather than simply a symptom of my bad memory). Was anyone else in Branklyn at lilac-time last year? Or perhaps I saw ‘Palibin’ somewhere else at the same time ten years ago and the memories are confused?

It doesn’t matter. I had met a superb, small-growing lilac with really quite a fine shape (for a lilac), and I began to dream of other ”dwarf’ lilacs. ‘Miss Kim’ is known as the ‘Manchurian lilac’, as opposed to Palabin’s ‘Korean’ common name. Plants make me want to wander … She’s bigger than ‘Palibin’ (to about 2 metres) and looks like being more upright, but I’m up for a lesson in what lilacs can do. And maybe ‘Palabin’ will come later?

My final from ‘me to me’ this week needs no explanation. I bought Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’. When I lived in Suffolk, straight after my student time at Kew, a dark-leaved elder was one of my first plantings. How can you beat a shrub with such good foliage and all the virtues of our native elder? And remember you can coppice it to keep it to size in a border. Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' Next week I’m going to give the ‘from me to me’ shrubs a miss to visit the ‘bourse aux greffons’ (a kind of ‘scion market’ for fruit trees) at my local branch of Croqueurs de Pommes (the French heritage fruit society). I’m a member and I’m excited! Hope you’ll be interested too … but back soon with the final additions in the from ‘me to me’ purchases.

15 thoughts on “Good things this (last) week & the treasure of Nancy

    1. Cathy Post author

      We did actually try that, John. But our voles seem to be too clever. On the other hand we did catch quite a few sweet little field mice and shrews. It was a bit sad. Fruit growers here make holes in the middle of their runs and put buckets in there for them to drown. So far the population has never again reached the disastrous levels of our first year here. We used poison at first (after the trap failure, and other strategies) and also planting in wire baskets. Now, having killed or driven them further afield, the cats seem to keep a lid on the numbers now and I don’t use poison. It was hair-raising to begin with!

  1. Amy

    How wonderful to make a garden full of lilacs! Thanks for all the background info on the Lemoine varieties; it’s always encouraging to know about the people behind the plants. I grew the Russian hybrid “Nadezhda” in the Midwest – it was a very good selection there because it was exceptionally mildew-resistant. I can only imagine how fragrant your garden will be… 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      Gosh, that’s a new one, Amy! I’ll have to google it. I bet you can’t grow lilacs where you are now, however. Nice to appreciate the things we can’t grow on other people’s blogs, isn’t it?

  2. Julie

    Cathy, I nearly piped up yesterday and then thought better of it and decided you must have a wonderful stress free life without deadlines to meet. I have Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ in a standard. I bought her around 12 years ago at a plant fair for £1.00, the seller did not want to take any stock home and as her stem is wonky I was the only buyer, she rewards us with a beautiful display each year and I love her wonky stem. I bought Hyacinths from Lidl too in November but they have done the opposite for me and the stems are now 20cm tall and a flower head on top of 15cm, so 35cm tall propped up with chopsticks plants. They were kept in a cool spot until the 3rd week of January and then brought into the kitchen as I wanted them in flower for a family party. Sorry to read to of your wide mouth experience, theres always one and I love all of the lilacs you have shown us today.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Good to know your ‘Palibin’ is a winner! Sophos (from the lovely ‘Balcony in Berlin’ blog) made a very good point re the hyacinths. I didn’t keep mine in the dark – and they’ve done what her mother warned her about. Re the timing of the blogs. It was only when I went somewhere yesterday afternoon and said to myself, ‘Hang on … I always do this on Tuesday’, that I realised the mistake. I was a bit stressed with work on Tuesday morning (and actually quite proud that I posted in about 5mins!) We live and learn. Hopefully my hyacinths will be as good as yours next year! Enjoy!

  3. sophos

    Call me the hyacinth girl… When I started forcing, my mum advised me to keep them cool and dark until the bud is well out of the bulb, otherwise they may flower inside the bulb, so to speak.

    Now, not sure which scent I like the most: hyacinths or lilacs… I think it’s the latter, as it has such connotations of early summer (and the end of school) in Sweden.

    1. Cathy Post author

      What great advice, Sophos! I knew you kept the bulbs planted in compost in early autumn dark, but assumed this did not apply with the vases. Silly me! Next year maybe? Glad you enjoyed the lilacs – I can imagine what joy they must be after a Swedish winter (a bit the same in Canada!) Take care

      1. sophos

        Mother knows best 🙂 Remember the little pointy “hats”? I made them from double brown paper and they’re enough to protect the bulbs from too much light.

  4. gardeninacity

    This is all very good to know about the Hyacinths, as I intend to force some next winter. As for lilacs, they are ungainly creatures. I don’t even care that much how the flowers look, it’s just that fragrance in spring – it justifies the lilac’s humdrum existence for all the rest of the year.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Yes – everyone is saying the mistake I made with the hyacinths in jars was not keeping them in the dark (which I would have done if they’d been in compost – a bit silly of me really, but nice to know now!).

  5. Pauline

    I haven’t had posts from you for ages, I’ve now re followed and hope that will sort the situation out! It will take me a while to read all your past posts.
    I love the perfume from both lilacs and hyacinths, I always put my hyacinths in the dark until the flower has formed and started to grow.
    Having so many lilacs in the garden will be absolutely wonderful,a garden full of perfume.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Hi Pauline. Yes, I moved the website. Thanks for the hyacinth comment. You are, I am sure, spot on. Sophos passed on the good advice from her mother (above). Silly me, I didn’t realise that when you bought them ready to go in a glass vase they also needed to be kept in the dark until they were up and running. I’m glad I posted, because now I know my mistake! Enjoyed your snowdrops so much yesterday evening!


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