Lilacs are plants of the north. They thrive in places where summer days are never steamy and winter seizes everything in a solid freeze. They make springtime on Mackinac Island, Michigan, simply glorious. But here in Maryland, where I live, most of them struggle. Some hang on year after year, but they’re spindly and don’t produce many blooms. Others just give up after they’ve fought through too many hot months.
I grew up in Pennsylvania, where lilacs do well. We had an enormous bush in the front yard that exploded in fragrant purple flowers at the start of warm weather. Our farm spread over 50 acres, so there were a lot of plants to love—daffodils that dotted grassy banks, hedges of wild roses that bordered the tilled fields, sun-warmed blackberries that we ate straight off the bush, holly trees that were covered in red berries come Christmas—but the lilac was always one of my favorites. I thought its smell was heavenly, and its sheer profusion seemed like a miracle after the long dark days of dead things in the garden.
As a grownup cultivating a suburban plot, I wanted to bring that symbol of childhood delight into my current world—but how? The lilac next door was so sickly that new neighbors ripped it out and sent it to the landfill as soon as they moved in.
I was discouraged. For years I planted other things and put the lilac out of my mind.
Finally, it occurred to me that maybe a hot-weather cultivar existed somewhere. I Googled. And I found inspiration.
The Betsy Ross is a hybrid specially bred for warmer climates. It was developed under the auspices of the U.S. National Arboretum—which tested it as far south as Alabama (zone 8)—and it was released for sale in 2002.
In 2007, I planted a sprig as an experiment. Now it’s a small bush and is looking happily established in a semi-shady area of my backyard. Its blossoms are white, but they smell as lilacs should. I’m fully expecting it to live large, and to herald the arrival of spring for many more years to come.