Image of N. L. Mikhailov

Nikolai Leonidovich Mikhailov celebrates his 80th anniversary on December 8th 2003. We send our congratulations and best wishes to this distinguished scientist and practical breeder who has dedicated himself to the selection and popularisation of the lilac in Russia and abroad.

When working at the Main Botanical Garden, Moscow, as Horticulturist in the 1970's and 80's he made contact with Charles Holetich at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and they began an exchange of lilac propagating material which we all benefit from to the present day.

Then, in 1980, he was co-author with L. I. Rubtzov and V. G. Zhogoleva of the book "Lilac Species and Cultivars in Cultivation in USSR" which was published by Naukova Dumka in Kiev. When Charles Holetich translated the descriptions of the cultivars into English and published them in a Special Edition of the International Lilac Society Journal LILACS in December 1982, they were a revelation to the west, and so were the pictures of them when they appeared in Fr. Fiala's "Lilacs: The Genus Syringa" Timber Press, 1988.

Thus Nikolai Mikhailov and Charles Holetich were instrumental in sending propagating material around the world and making authoritative descriptions available. Whilst Charles sent new American and Canadian cultivars east, Nikolai Leonidovich sent propagating material and information about his own cultivars to the west along with those of L. A. Kolesnikov and N. K. Vekhov and also those produced in Minsk, Kiev, Donetsk, the Baltic States and many other places. Thus our lives were enriched and fragrance and beauty were spread around the world. For this work the International Lilac Society gave their Directors' Award to Nikolai Leonidovich Mikhailov in 1977. But, that work almost did not happen.

Since childhood he was always fond of nature and loved flowers and butterflies. "I even love frogs," smiles Mikhailov. But the path to a life of nature led through the dark, frightful years of the Second World War. When the Great Patriotic War started, Kolya entered the leavers' class at school as he was only seventeen. He spent one day at school and, concealing his age, he left to the front as a volunteer. He fought through the hardest years in the battles around Moscow. "We were frost bitten in temperatures of 40 below zero and swollen from hunger as we were digging trenches in snow and fighting to free small villages", he recalls. "All we wanted was to get warm and have a proper sleep".

He was sent to hospital with a wound to the arm and after recovery he went to the commanders' school to be trained as an officer. Back at the front the young Lieutenant Mikhailov was sent with a shock battalion to break through the enemy's defences near Smolensk. The explosion, which caught him, came when the battle was at its height and, just before the silence overwhelmed him, the last thing he remembered were enemy soldiers running over him because they thought he was dead.

Surgeons worked for hours to remove countless shell splinters, and severe head injuries led to heavy shell-shock, lost hearing and six months poised between life and death. "My mother saved me", he says. In the country of official atheism she prayed for him night and day at the church for six months. In the spring of 1944 he left the hospital. Times were very hard and there were no spare uniforms. He was given a woman's greatcoat and the very first patrol he encountered in Moscow arrested him as a spy. His war had ended. He was just 20 years old.

He entered the Agricultural Academy named after K. A. Timiryazev and specialized in the field of decorative horticulture in order to help to fill with flowers a land laid waste by war. In 1948 he went to work as a trainee at the Main Botanical Garden, Moscow. There he met Ivan Ivanovich Shtan'ko - curator of lilacs and roses and another former front line soldier. Shtan'ko was a strict mentor, but he liked the serious and hard working student and in 1949, after graduation, Mikhailov came to work at the MBG full time.

He studied lilacs and they won his heart. In search of knowledge, he met Leonid Kolesnikov who gave him 50 of his varieties to plant at the MBG. Through his hard work and enthusiasm he eventually increased the collection to about 450 different kinds.

Mikhailov's own varieties are well known and are very popular in Russia and they are also becoming known around the world. Some of them are: -

'Shkol'nitsa' (Schoolgirl). Named for his elder daughter who entered first grade of secondary school in the year the cultivar was named.

'Alenushka'. Named for his younger daughter.

'Kosmos'. This is Russian for "Space" and characterizes the colour of this outstanding cultivar.

'Ostankino'. This is the district of Moscow where the MBG is situated and which is famous for Earl Sheremetev's palace of exquisite architecture and gardens. It is also the native district of a person called N. L. Mikhailov!

'Yubileinaya'. Jubilee edition.

There was also 'Ametist 2' and the new cultivars revealed in LILACS last year. There are two more seedlings waiting to be named (see Moscow Journal in LILACS Vol 33 No 1) and he awaits the flowerings of seedlings from 'Miss Canada', 'Flora' and 'Cavour'.

Mikhailov's other passion is roses. At the MBG he maintained a collection of 2500 varieties, many of which he shared with other botanical gardens. Dr Mikhailov's thesis was dedicated to roses and he was the author of three books about lilacs. His small garden in a Moscow suburb simply drowns in roses and lilacs - the two great passions of his life.

This wonderful man is full of energy and life. Whenever you call him you are welcome to ask questions or you are invited to come to see him. His house is full of hospitality and kindness and love. His family is very close. He and Nina Andreyevna (Mrs Mikhailov) have two daughters, two granddaughters and a grandson, which might explain why he is so prepared to share his great experience with younger generations through articles and lectures. We wish him to enjoy the flowerings of his garden for many years to come with good health and a sharp mind. On your 80th birthday Nikolai Leonidovich we thank you for your precious gift to us all.

Tatiana Polyakova, Colin Chapman, Irina Semyonova

Photo credits:
N. Mikhailov, T. Polyakova, V. Balabanov, I. Podosinkina, A. Kudryavtsev