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Lots of lovely lilacs

Princeton man has largest known private collection of lilac cultivars in North America

By Bill Vossler

One day every spring Kelly Applegate opens up his bedroom window in his Princeton home to allow the aroma of freshly blooming lilacs to enter the house. Kelly has more than 300 different lilac cultivars he has planted on the one-acre plot where he and Joe Decker live.

Mark L. DeBard of the International Lilac Society said Kelly Applegate has what is likely the largest private collection of lilac cultivars in North America.

“They are beautifully spaced about 12 feet apart,” said DeBard, “with circular edge retainers surrounding the mulched bases, with grass for ground cover between the lilacs, and meticulously labeled with excellent metal and plastic signs denoting the cultivar and species.”

Kelly Applegate, whose hobby is the 300 cultivars of lilacs, shows this rare Hosanna cultivar, which was bred by Father John Fiala. All of his cultivars have some religious significance. Photo by Nikki Rajala

“I’ve been a gardener all my life since I was a kid,” said Kelly. “Eventually, I really focused on pretty much just lilacs. So my one acre of property is probably 90 percent lilacs. Every square foot I could plant a lilac, I planted one. It’s just a hobby of mine that I’m passionate about.”

Kelly grew up on the property and started planting lilacs about 20 years ago.

“Lilacs have a really long, interesting history. Many people see them and think ‘purple, white, and dark purple.’ They don‘t realize the different color class categories lilacs have -- those mentioned, along with yellow, magenta, pink, and blue. So many different colors.”

And once established, lilacs can live for a very long time.

“Lilacs can live pretty well forever,” Kelly said. “Existing farmsteads from the late 1800s still have lilacs growing. All that is left on the property is the foundation of buildings, and lilacs.

Lilacs are tough. They can fend for themselves. Surprisingly, they are in the olive family, and though they don’t have a fruit, they have a fruiting seed capsule that dries out with four seeds inside.

Roommate Discovers Lilacs

When Joe Decker moved in with Kelly in 2017, he was surprised by all the lilacs. “And really interesting. Each look different from each other, and have different fragrances--one even smells like clean linen. And the smells change with the weather -- when it’s cool, their aroma will last a lot longer. And when it’s hot, the blooming doesn’t last as long.”

Joe figures Kelly had about 200 lilac cultivars when he moved in, and that was a lot. “Then he added more and more, so I got to help him with this last third.” That meant planting and watering them.

Joe’s favorites include some that have two-toned or variegated leaves. “Some can express both colors at once, or only one of the two.”

“Blue Skies,” is one of many lilac varieties cared for by Kelly and Joe. Photo by Nikki Rajala

The older cultivars hold up well in most weather, Kelly said. “The younger ones I kind of baby along and water once a week during the hot spells, giving them a good soaking with the garden hose one by one. If the older ones are getting too dry, I turn a hose on them for a nice soaking if they really really need it.”

Joe said some people have suggested that they charge admission to see the lilacs. “At our garage sale, people were more interested in the lilacs than the garage sale. Some people think our yard is a park, but then discover, ‘Oh this is actually somebody’s house.’”

Surprising Lilac Information

Kelly said he has different species from all over the world.

“We have cultivars from China, Russia, Macedonia, all which grow in this climate. Actually, lilacs love cold weather. They need at least a hundred days of freezing or below freezing temperatures in order to bloom correctly. That’s why you won’t find them down south in Texas or Florida. Lilacs need that cold.”

Kelly said taking care of that many cultivars is very rewarding. “It’s like everything. You get out what you put in. Pruning, fertilizing, planting, and labeling them takes a lot of work. But in the spring you’re rewarded with those beautiful colors and the wonderful scents.”

They vary, he said, “From a light baby powder smell to a real sweet French perfume smell. Some later ones smell like grapes, or spicy cinnamon, and one called Purple Haze smells like Easter lilies.”

Why does he do it?

“Why not? People should do things that make them happy, and get the most out of life. For me, collecting lilacs and enjoying working on them is a passion. People should be more connected to nature and less to electronics and our fast-paced world. We would be a healthier society if we got back into our roots, connected to the earth doing simple things, like finding joy in gardening, a great way to manage stress and feel a sense of accomplishment, whether just growing a few tomatoes or flowers in pots. You don’t have to do much to make it rewarding: plant a couple of seeds and watch them grow. Water them, and then harvest them at the end of the year. Grow pumpkins, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes. It is what you make it. I wish more people were gardeners.”

Betsy Ross sewed the American flag during American Revolution times, and this cultivar is named after her. Nikki Rajala Photo

Kelly said most people seeing his cultivars usually don’t know there are different kinds of lilacs. “They say, ‘I never knew there were so many different kinds.’ Or ‘Wow!’”

Hybridizers painstakingly breed them for different shades of colors and smells. People seeing the name tags under the plants believe Kelly made them up. “Some are named after hybridizers’ family members, “Like Madame Lamoine. They don’t realize that a breeder crossed two flowers, pollinated them together, took the seed and grew it out.”

Out of a couple thousand seedlings, he said, “Only a few meet standards to be introduced to the wider world, listed in the lilac registry, and given a name.”

Three Hundred Is Enough

Kelly said he won’t get more land, or plant more cultivars. “Unless I lose a cultivar. Sometimes a rabbit or vole will destroy one, or girdle the bark, so then I’ll replace it. “I’m right at the point that this one acre, with help from Joe and the family, is all I can do. I’m pretty happy with that. If I moved, I don’t know what would become of my lilac collection. I’d have to bring them all with me, and imagine moving 300 plants, how expensive and time-consuming that would be. So I’m always going to have to keep that property. I’m content where I’m at.”

Lilacs are a universal plant that are loved by just about everyone. They are “a universally, globally loved plant” said Kelly.

Kelly’s advice for people who want to start growing lilacs is to pick one up at your local nursery. “It’s going to be tried and true and do good for you. Put a one to three gallon pot in the ground, give it room and a little water once in a while to get it started, and it will grow. You don’t need to do all the extra steps I do, like pruning and such. Look to the International Lilac Society for more information, where you can get serious with some of the more rare colors and rare plants.”

Kelly said the lilacs on his property are not open to the public. “People may want to see them, but I’ve seen not everyone is respectful on other people’s property. Flowers get picked, and grass gets destroyed with the volume of people walking around. The best way to get to see the lilacs is to become a member of the International Lilac Society, or people can see it by appointment.”

International Lilac Society

The International Lilac Society has been around since the mid-1970s, Kelly said. A society of people like himself with a strong passion for lilacs, come together to promote lilacs, making sure that public collections in arboretums were okay, and that promoting lilacs across the world was a good thing.

The 150th anniversary of the United States is commemorated with this lilac cultivar called Sesquicentennial. Pictured with the lilacs are Joe (left) and Kelly (right). Photo by Bill Vossler

The Society met at Kelly and Joe’s house for three days in mid-June, and were very excited about seeing all the cultivars, Joe said.

The lilac that Kelly opens the window for every year is the Dwarf Korean. “I like intense aromas like that one. It really smells good right next to my window. When the full bloom opens up and the window is up, the aroma scents the whole house.”

Because he is Native American, Kelly said, he has a real close relationship to the earth, and everything that’s natural. “For me to connect to plants is naturally part of me. That doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy nature in the same way. All of humankind can enjoy the connection to the earth, and the connection to natural living plants. That’s a universal, global commonality that all humanity has in common with each other.”

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