Lilacs in California: Lavender Lady

Yesterday at the Gamble Garden in Palo Alto, a small stand of rather sparse shrubs, blooming gorgeously and giving off the heady scent of lilacs. So they were, and that was notable: you don’t see a lot of lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) in California. What you see instead are what are called California lilacs — California lilac is a resembloid compound referring to plants in the genus Ceonothus, not even in the same plant family as Syringa; see my 6/20/13 posting “Poppies, lilacs, and lilies”, with a section on Ceonothus vs. Syringa. (Of course yesterday’s flowering shrub was in fact a California lilac: subsective California lilac ‘lilac from or in California’.)

But why are lilacs rare in California? Because they’re cold-winter plants. Then why are there any at all? Because there are now some hybrids that are relatively tolerant of warm winters.

From the Sunset magazine site, in “Mild-climate lilacs” by Lauren Bonar Swezey:

Flowers as pretty as party dresses, with a gently sweet fragrance reminiscent of Grandma’s dressing table, make lilacs sentimental favorites. In a world that swirls around us too fast, lilacs spark nostalgia ― possibly for a place where they once flourished, or perhaps for another era.

But this nostalgia isn’t easy to create everywhere. In mild-winter climates, you can’t pop just any lilac (Syringa vulgaris) into the ground and expect an exuberant show of blooms come midspring. You’ll need to buy low-chill varieties.

Why? Because most lilacs prefer the kind of winter chill that sends us scrambling for heavy wool coats. Not so the low-chill varieties.

The first low-chill lilac [Syringa x hyacinthiflora, called ‘Lavender Lady’,


was developed in Southern California 30 years ago by Walter Lammerts, a researcher and hybridizer with Rancho del Descanso ― a former wholesale nursery that’s now the site of Descanso Gardens, a botanical garden open to the public. “Walter was an excellent hybridizer,” says Bob Boddy, son of the nursery’s owner. “He came up with a progeny of 350 potentially outstanding low-chill lilacs.” Although many varieties of lilacs are sometimes attributed to Lammerts, ‘Lavender Lady’ and ‘Angel White’


were his only direct creations.

But other descendants from the original plantings have been introduced through the years by Descanso’s staff. The lilacs ― often referred to as Descanso Hybrids ― now number a dozen or so, and many of them can still be seen growing at the gardens (1418 Descanso Dr., La Cañada Flintridge).

(The photos above are from the offerings of Descanso hybrids on the L.E. Cooke Co. site — “Excellence in trees since 1944” in Visalia, Tulare Co., in the San Joaquin Valley.)

Lavender Lady. I was much taken with the alliterative, poetic name Lavender Lady. And that led me to an assortment of spas for women named Lavender Lady and a number of songs entitled “Lavender Lady” and: the Lavender Lady revolver, the Lavender Lady cocktail, a long-neglected comic opera Lavender Lady by Victor Herbert, and Agnes Moorehead — yes, Endora in Bewitched — performing as “The Lavender Lady”.

LL the revolver. From the Charter Arms site:


The Lavender Lady is another model in Charter’s exciting line of duotone revolvers. Like our other duotone offerings, the heart of the Lavender Lady is our popular Undercover Lite, but with an attractive lavender anodized finish.

The responsibility of personal protection doesn’t have to weigh you down. Whether your work dictates that you carry lethal force or you carry a revolver for peace of mind—the Undercover Lite provides impressive stopping power while weighing a mere 12 oz. [$414]

That’s lavender the color. Understood as conveying femininity, so marketed to women, complete with a lady-like name. But the color could make it attractive to a flamboyant gay man in search of protection.

LL the cocktail. From the Psychologies site on 6/7/17, “‘Lavender Lady’ gin cocktail: The ‘Lavender Lady’ is gin brand Hayman’s take on the traditional sour ‘White Lady’ cocktail”:


The egg white creates a silky mixture, which perfectly accompanies the honey and Cointreau [and lemon juice, gin, and orange bitters]. Top the cocktail with a sprig of lavender, and sit back in the garden and relax.

That’s lavender the herb (genus Lavandula).

LL the comic opera. From the Comic Opera Guild site:

(#5) The Lavender Lady by Victor Herbert (lyrics by Otto Harbach; music restored by Adam Aceto): original cast recording of 2012

Brought to the attention of the public in 1935 [Herbert died in 1924], this watershed collaboration between two musical theatre giants is barely mentioned in any publication about its authors or about musical theatre. For decades, its scores sat quietly in Washington, DC and its libretto in New York — unnoticed, unperformed, and unrecorded. This recording was made from the show’s only performance.

LL the stage reading. Perhaps the oddest of an odd lot — we’ve strayed far from spring lilacs in bloom — is the recording Spoken Word Masters: The Lavender Lady, of Agnes Moorehead reading selected texts:

(#6) Excerpts from a performance taped at University of Wisconsin, River Falls, in 1968; released in 1976 by Quinto Records (apparently a Quint Benedetti venture — see below)

Very briefly about Moorehead, from Wikipedia:

(#7) Bewitched (1964-72): Moorehead as Endora, Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur

Agnes Robertson Moorehead (December 6, 1900 – April 30, 1974) was an American actress whose 41-year career included work in radio, stage, film, and television. She is best known for her role as Endora on the television series Bewitched, but she also has notable roles in films, including Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Dark Passage, All That Heaven Allows, Show Boat, and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

(#8) Dark Passage (1947): Moorehead and Humphrey Bogart

Possibly relevant here: her sexuality was a matter of dispute.

Then,from The Last Drive-In site on 11/21/15, in an enormous review of Moorehead’s life and career:

 “Lavender is just pink trying to be purple” she paraphrased Proust… by Quint Benedetti from his book … Agnes Moorehead — The Lavender Lady …  Benedetti knew Agnes Moorehead for ten years and was her personal assistant for five of those years.

(#9) Benedetti’s 2010 book

On Benedetti, from IMDb:

Quint Benedetti was born on April 21, 1926 in Ohio, as Quentin Joseph Benedetti. He was an actor, known for Doomsday Voyage (1972). He died on January 1, 2014 in Oceanside, California.

Benedetti was the keeper of Moorehead’s identity as “The Lavender Lady”;  presumably the origins of the epithet are uncovered in his book.

One Response to “Lilacs in California: Lavender Lady”

  1. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky starts with lilacs, which include hybrids tolerant of the California climate, and goes on to explore […]

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