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Fragrant New Lilac for Warmer Climates

By Jesús García
October 26, 2000

A new lilac cultivar with increased disease resistance is the first release from the Agricultural Research Service’s lilac genetic improvement program. The new Syringa cultivar, called “Betsy Ross,” has greater resistance to powdery mildew, the biggest disease problem for lilacs in the Washington, D.C., area.

ARS scientists with the Floral and Nursery Plants Research Laboratory at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., released “Betsy Ross” to nurseries for commercial sale in July.

The common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, so enchanted the peoples of southeastern Europe and temperate Asia with its singular scent and pale lavender flower that it did not take long for aficionados to introduce it to the New World. The lilac’s pleasures were so renowned, in fact, that it was the first flowering shrub--after the rose--to be imported to the New World in the 1600s.

The “Betsy Ross” cultivar was developed under a program that was started by plant breeder Don Egolf in the 1960s. The cultivar was developed from a cross using the lilac Syringa oblata, which was collected in China in 1976. Asia has long been the origin of popular lilac varieties here in the United States. The Korean lilac, for example, typically the earliest to bloom in the United States, was introduced to the U.S. in the 19th century.

Starting in 1992, the “Betsy Ross” lilac was distributed to cooperating nurseries throughout the United States to evaluate its superior performance. Its resistance to powdery mildew, its fragrant white flowers, lush green foliage, compact growth habit, disease tolerance and adaptation to warmer climates ensured its success. The new shrub thrives under full sun and can be used as a background planting in a shrub border, as a specimen plant or hedge or mass-planted throughout USDA hardiness zones 5-7.

Genetic material from this new cultivar will be deposited in the National Plant Germplasm System to make it available to researchers and others interested in developing and commercializing new cultivars. ARS is the chief scientific agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Margaret R. Pooler, ARS Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit, U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C., phone (202) 245-4568, fax (202) 245-4579,