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Allan designs and plants flowering gardens in Montreal, Zone 5 [USDA Zone 4] .

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Entries in spring flowering shrubs (2)


Rhododendron "Rosy Lights" Formerly Known as an Azalea

I am a plant growing in Allan’s garden and I am not certain of my identity. My given name is Rosy Lights but my family name is puzzling. I used to belong to the Azalea family until botanists tested my DNA. From the results, they concluded that I am a Rhododendron. Why did they have to go and do that? Did they not realize how long it took me to learn how to spell azalea?

I find it hard to believe that I am actually a rhodo because I am not a broad-leafed evergreen. My foliage, which is smaller than theirs is, turns brown and drops off in autumn. Rhododendrons maintain their green foliage all winter. Allan likes them better than he likes me because, throughout the year, their leaves help to camouflage the foundation of his house. In addition, they are more substantial looking, their form is more elegant, and they make a more effective glossy green background for perennials than my foliage does.

In winter, I look barren compared to a rhododendron. Even in spring, there are noticeable empty spaces among my branches because I am gangly, my small sized foliage doesn’t spread far enough, and my shape is not as symmetrical as a rhodo is. That’s why I am placed away from the foundation, among the other seasonal plants. The foundation is reserved for those shapelier plants that are also reliable camouflagers. In small urban gardens, I am used as an ornamental shrub among the perennials. I don’t mind and remain proud because I bring breathtaking beauty to the garden.

In this photo shoot, I am seen blooming in the flowerbed in the second week of May, in Zone 4 and, except for spring flowering bulbs and Pulmonaria, nothing else is flowering now to give the homeowner pleasure. I have the garden to myself and there, I put on an eye-catching display.

Did you notice how photogenic I am? Is it because my flowers are iridescent? Or, did nature outdo herself when she designed my flower head? Some people confuse me with an orchid. Thanks for the flattery, but I believe that I am far more interesting. In this garden, I am known as an attention grabber. That feels good. It makes Allan feels good too, just to look at me.


Room with a View of Lilacs.

Above is a partial view of my test garden filtering through the webbing of a window screen. It's fascinating that only my camera lens would pick up the visual barrier because my brain doesn't see the screen at all. This idyllic image is the first thing that my wife sees each morning when she opens the bedroom window shades. At this time of the year, here in USDA Zone 4, perennials are still emerging and therefore, not very noticeable from far. What I like best about the above view is the fact it is framed in the foreground by the newly opened lilacs.

As the early species tulips are just about to mature and fade, this reliable, aromatic, flowering shrub is the next most exciting gardening event that we experience. The opening of its buds always precedes Mother’s Day by one week. That timing prompted me to create a family ritual. Every year on that special day, I harvest flowering branches and deliver them to my mother-in-law.

I am thankful to the original homeowners who chose to plant lilacs under the bedroom window. They intended that these shrubs grow tall enough to be seen from indoors and fill the room with sweet aroma. Ironically, here in Zone 4, spring is too cold to permit us to keep the windows open and our lilacs’ aroma does not enchant us into sleep. Instead, we cut a few branches and place them in water indoors. Then, the entire house is filled with lilac perfume, and we imagine that we have been transported to the fantasy of Shangra-la.

In the photo above, the white shrub to the left produces an intense sweet perfume. The pale rose-mauve shrub on the right, which I suspect is a very common variety, produces a too-mild aroma. Unseen in the photo, but to the right, is a purplish-wine bush emitting a deep, rich scent that is so intoxicating that it causes goose bumps to appear on my arms.

Gardeners who intend to plant lilac shrubs should keep in mind that at least six hours of sun is essential, full sun is best, and that many varieties will develop into a wide grove, so that it’s wise to allocate space for them to grow exponentially. Not all lilacs are alike; therefore, a plant may not bloom exactly when or how the gardener imagined that it would. That is why it’s a good idea to research online the habit of several varieties, and to carefully read the plant tags at the nurseries. Also, some plants perform bigger and better in climates warmer than mine. Local nurseries can be helpful in guiding gardeners in that regard.

French varieties are leggy and barren at their bottoms with a wide expanse at their tops; the Prestonia may be denser and more columnar in shape. The dwarf varieties, such as Meyeri Palabin, Kim, or Sugar Plum Fairy, grow into large round spheres measuring between three to four feet in diameter in my growing zone, and larger in warmer locations. Some nurseries offer them transformed into a costlier tree. That is done by grafting the miniature shrub onto a slender tree trunk to create a large lollipop-shaped plant. As a shrub or a tree, the pungent, spicy aroma of the dwarf varieties defies description.

Some varieties are miniature, short, medium, or tall. Bloom time may be early or later. Syringia Bloomerang and S. Josée, bloom in spring, and again later in the season, but I have not yet tested them. Some lilac shrubs are more fragrant than others are, and the nuances in the available color choices are excessive. Due to the large number of lilac varieties, controlling for specific characteristics often makes the selection more challenging than is necessary.

However, the most important advice about this shrub is that gardeners in cold climates should not attempt to control its height or shape. Although it is impossible to discern at first glance, lilacs set next year’s flowering buds on the branch tips of this year’s growth. In colder climates, with a shorter growing season, any attempt to trim the shrub will remove these buds and eliminate next year’s flower display. Some of us wait all year long to feel on high when we inhale a lilac's sweet aroma. Therefore, to avoid deep disappointment, this shrub should remain unclipped. For those in warmer climates, this issue may not be a problem. Please read what Carolyn reports in the comment section below.