PLANT OF THE WEEK #76: Syringa x persica 'Alba'

Please note: if you read on, you’re entering a zone lacking both experience and discernment.  It’s gush, from start to finish.

My white Persian lilac (Syringa x persica ‘Alba’) is in flower for the first time, and I’m in love.  I’ve been aware of the plant for years, and grew to know and love one well at Great Dixter (and, given my opening frankness, I may as well go the whole way and confess that pretty much anything ‘endorsed’ by being planted by Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter gets a guernsey from me.  It may well be lame, but it’s a lameness I’m extremely attached to – the overriding of discernment in favour of the enchantedness that hovers around any plant grown somewhere in a location that you’ve deeply loved, or has impacted you profoundly).

There’s a lot to love about Syringa x persica ‘Alba’.  It’s open, it’s elegant, it’s restrained, it’s lightly fragrant, it’s unselfconscious and ‘unimproved’ yet inherently refined.

And though I’m in love, I’m not (quite) blind.  It’s not totally perfect.  It suckers a bit (which isn’t always a bad thing, lets agree) and it’s ‘alba-ness’ is stained slightly – just ever so slightly – with mauve deep in the throat of each flower.  So it’s not a pure white.  But I’m feeling awkwardly disloyal heading this direction, so back to its strengths.

I confessed a few weeks back to being a sucker for shrubs of cane-like growth.  I wouldn’t want all shrubs to take up the habit, as where would we be without all those of short peripheral growth that are perfect for clipping?   But there’s something about the movement in shrubs made up of long, arching canes.  There’s something about their relative transparency – that even though that might form a domed outline, you can see into their depths.  And there’s something about that vase-like quality of branches roughly radiating out from a single basal point.  If you add terminal panicles of flower, so that each of those long, arching, dancing wands is crowned (and hopefully elegantly weighed down) with flowers, then what’s left not to love?

Add to that that shrubs of cane-like growth tend to reach a height and then stop growing any taller (something of which no peripherally growing shrub can boast), and tend to be very tolerant of re-growing after being cut back to stumps, should this ever be necessary.

Syringa x persica is such an old hybrid that it looks like no one is quite sure of its parenthood.  And this white form, a ‘sport’ of the mauve-coloured original, itself goes back 250 years.   It’s a very useful height, sitting at about 1.2-1.5m, has fine and sometimes slightly divided foliage in perfect proportion to its total size, and while I can’t back this up with any personal experience, many of the references say that it will flower in places slightly too warm to flower the really showy, fragrant lilacs your granny grew.  (And on that, I’ve had several Sydney gardeners lamenting their lack of frost necessary for flowering lilacs.  They absolutely don’t need frost.  They just need a cooler winter than Sydney has, and do perfectly well in frost-free Melbourne).  

Yes, the white Persian lilac is hard to get.  But there’s something to be said for the thrill of the chase, and for garden ‘longing’, and, I’d further argue, for simply knowing about something you may never own.


  1. Very charming plant of the week Michael. A quick salvo of questions: how much water does it need, how long does it flower for, and how much of a hot spot will it take?

    1. Thanks, from an old Salvo.
      1. Don’t know. Too early to say. I’d guess moderately drought tolerant (like most lilacs, which can, at best, be incredibly drought tolerant
      2. Not sure. three or four weeks – about the same as most desirable flowering shrubs
      3. Not sure. But the references all say that it’s quite heat tolerant. I have mine on a western fence

  2. I do love your last paragraph Michael. Its so difficult sourcing plants here in the wild west so I often content myself with learning about them and marking my books in pencil, knowing I will possibly never have the chance to play with them myself. Keep challenging us. I am sure many are on the hunt constantly as I am.

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