US National Arboretum


Arboretum Plant Intorductions and Releases

Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit

'Betsy Ross' Lilac and 'Don Egolf' Redbud

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Composite picture of 'Betsy Ross' lilac and 'Don Egolf' redbud releases INTRODUCING ...

'Betsy Ross' Lilac

"When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed..." would they have bloomed as sweetly as 'Betsy Ross'? We bid you welcome and seek to tantalize your flower buds with thoughts of a lovely new lilac just released last year.

'Betsy Ross' is the first lilac (Syringa) cultivar to be released by the U.S. National Arboretum. It is the result of a hybridization program carried out by the late Arboretum scientist, Dr. Donald Egolf. With the knowledge that lilacs have a special appeal to people in every area of the country, the shrub research's lilac hybridization program has sought to concentrate on developing new cultivars that are especially well-suited to more southern areas of the country, while still performing well in their natural northern homes. -- Click here to see the Fact Sheet about 'Betsy Ross' --

Thus, some of the criteria for evaluating the plants in the program were the ability to withstand heat and humidity without looking like "plant urchins," the ability to flower without the need for a long cold period to break the dormancy of the flower buds, and the ability to withstand the onslaught of powdery mildew, a fungal disease especially prevalent in hot, humid areas.

For the uninitiated, powdery mildew is a fungus that covers the leaves of a plant, giving them a powdery white appearance instead of the normal healthy green. This fungal covering reduces the amount of sunlight that the leaves need for photosynthesis.

Additionally, on the slate of desired traits was a refined growth habit and a profusion of flowers that completely cover the plant so that the inflorescences (flower clusters) would be at a level where they could be enjoyed by the average person. If we may be permitted so chauvinistic a thought, we needed a "lady."

The upshot of all of this is that in July, 2000, Syringa 'Betsy Ross' was officially introduced and released by Dr. Margaret Pooler of the Arboretum. The plant is now in the hands of the wholesale propagators and should be available at the retail level in 2002.

After 17 years of growth in the research nursery on the Arboretum grounds, 'Betsy Ross' has reached a height of ~10 feet with a width of 13 feet. It is a relatively compact, rounded shrub with thick, dark green foliage with good field tolerance to powdery mildew. The hardiness rating for 'Betsy Ross' is USDA Zones 5 through 8, and possibly into Zone 4, so it has a wide range of adaptability.

Picture of 'Betsy Ross' pure white flowers

The flower clusters completely cover the plant with foamy white blooms in early spring, and all around is evident the sweet smell of success. 'Betsy Ross' is one of the earliest lilacs to bloom, relieving the dull tedium of winter with the promise of spring.

Aside from gracing the familiar dooryard, 'Betsy Ross' is at home in a variety of landscape settings, especially those where its beloved fragrance can be appreciated. 'Betsy Ross' makes a lovely specimen plant or can be used quite effectively in the mixed shrub border. It can also be used as a hedge, screen, or background for smaller plants with good effect, especially in spring when the mass of bloom and fragrance is overpowering. Even in winter, the interplay of gray branches is interesting and unifying.

This is one of those wonderful things about plants and gardening that is so rewarding-we can put them where they please us. In fact, we are reminded of a sentiment found in a 1994 issue of Avant Gardener wherein the writer was espousing the even greater dependence of American gardens on really excellent shrubs. Their various forms, textures, and colors form the backbone that blends and melds together the garden and defines its boundaries. We can take advantage of this advice, and imagine and create that effect in our own place. So, just imagine a perfect place for 'Betsy Ross' in your garden and please yourself!

Picture 'Don Egolf' redbud plant INTRODUCING ...

'Don Egolf' Redbud

In keeping with the National Arboretum's Asian plant theme for the year 2001, we proudly would like to aquaint you with Cercis chinensis 'Don Egolf'. Named for Dr. Donald Egolf, one of the foremost plant breeders of ornamental woody plants in the U.S., and released this past July, 2000, it is the first Cercis (redbud) cultivar to be introduced by the Arboretum. -- Click here to see the Fact Sheet about 'Don Egolf' redbud --

Now for the story behind the plant, the type of information which we always find fascinating and which gives the plant a little more "personality." In 1984, seed labeled as Cercis chingii was received by the shrub breeding research group, then headed by Dr. Egolf, from a botanical garden in Kunming, Yunnan, the People's Republic of China. The seed was germinated, and the seedlings were planted in the research fields on the USNA grounds for further evaluation. The late Dr. Theodore Dudley, Arboretum Research Taxonomist, then determined that the seedlings were Cercis chinensis instead of the purported C. chingii.

After 4-5 years of field testing, the research staff noted that one of the plants exhibited a fairly dwarf, slow-growing, compact habit. Additionally, it produced abundant bloom every year but had no seed pods! Preliminary propagation of this particular redbud was also promising in that it was extremely easy to root from cuttings. This redbud selection, the future cultivar 'Don Egolf', was sent for evaluation in 14 states throughout the U.S. in addition to the National Arboretum site. While under evaluation it has shown no signs of invasiveness.

'Don Egolf' is a durable, tough plant, and grows well in full sun or partial shade. Hardy in U.S.D.A. Zones 6-9, it tolerates many different soil types and is especially good in areas that tend to be dry. Overly wet, poorly drained soils will do a real number on it though, so avoid these areas when selecting your site. Additionally, it appears to be highly tolerant to Botryosphaeria canker, a fungal disease which can easily decimate native redbuds and their cultivars in our area.

Picture of 'Don Egolf' redbud's rosy mauve flowers

Trying to describe the color of redbud flowers is no easy task. They are not red; they are not pink; they are not purple. Combine all of these colors together, mix well, and you may get close to describing them. We're calling the flower color a rosy mauve for short. It is just this "neon light" that you might want to add to your spring landscape. In the Washington, D.C., area 'Don Egolf' can usually be found in full glorious bloom around mid-April.

For those of you who do not ordinarily consider redbud when planning your landscape, we hope you will save a place for this wonderful, compact shrub when it becomes available at the retail level in another year or so (planning ahead). With few pests or disease problems to concern you, and the absence of those ugly old brown seed pods hanging on through the winter, the gray stemmed, vase-shaped habit and carefree maintenance afforded by 'Don Egolf' will make it a treasured jewel in your garden.

Adapted from articles ("New and interesting plants from the U.S. National Arboretum") written by Horticulturist Ruth Dix

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Last Updated   January 18, 2005 4:27 PM

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