Lilacs are among the most beloved spring-flowering shrubs.
A drive through the countryside in May often reveals the site of long-abandoned farmsteads, evidenced by a lone lilac in bloom. Not only is this testament to their longevity and self-sufficiency, it is another reason we are enchanted. A bouquet of cut blooms perfumes a room, and takes us instantly back to those childhood memories of grandmother’s garden.
Lilacs are often a must-have plant for new gardeners. Common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, is the classic form with light purple flowers. Upright shrubs grow to eight to fifteen feet tall, and will have best flowering in a location with at least eight hours of direct sunlight. Ideal soil is fertile, humus-rich, well-drained and neutral to slightly sweet (alkaline), but plants are clearly quite forgiving and very cold hardy — to USDA Zone 3 (minus-40 degrees).
Over the years, breeders have produced a wonderful assortment of colors. Flowers are always borne in dense clusters, and individual florets may be single or have doubled petals. Unlike many hybridized plants, fragrance is reliable.
Some selections that are popular, dependable, and easy to find include Ellen Willmott and Krasavitsa Moskvy (Beauty of Moscow), both good double-flowered whites. For light lavender-blue, consider double-flowered President Grevy and President Lincoln with single blossoms and an especially strong fragrance. Katherine Havemeyer is another well-scented variety with double pink flowers, along with Belle De Nancy.
The deep, rich colors are highly sought after, including Ludwig Spaeth and Monge with doubled midnight violet flowers, and richly scented Charles Joly with heavy clusters of double magenta wine. Sensation has dark purple florets neatly rimmed in white, perfect for fragrant bouquets.
While these common lilacs are best known, there are other species that bring other qualities to the mix. All are wonderfully fragrant, but the scent is a bit different than the classic lilac.
Meyer lilac is a more petite form, maturing at four to eight feet tall with a wider spread, and Palibin is an especially compact selection at four to five feet. These are probably the prettiest landscape plants, with a neat, mounded, symmetrical form and very dense violet-purple flowers that tend to cover the entire plant, not just the upper portion as with common lilacs. Meyer lilacs are hardy to Zone 3, and leaves are resistant to the powdery mildew that sometimes affects other lilacs in late summer.
Miss Kim is a dwarf hybrid, closely related to Meyer but typically reaching only three feet. Purple buds open to cool blue flowers. One of the few lilacs with good fall foliage color.
Preston lilac hybrids have been bred from several later-flowering species and can extend the lilac display (and cut flower supply) into June. Flower clusters tend to be longer, from six to twelve inches long. Plants typically reach six to ten feet and are the most cold-hardy of the lot, to USDA Zone 2 (minus-50 degrees). Donald Wyman is a readily found selection, with deep pink-red flowers. Other varieties expand the palette of colors with white, light pink, violet, and magenta.
New to the mix are reblooming lilacs. Josee is the original, now joined by the Bloomerang series in several shades of purple and pink. Overall appearance is like the Meyer lilacs.
Most unique, perhaps, is the Japanese tree lilac, Syringa reticulata. Plants reach 20 to 30 feet tall with a 15 to 20-foot spread, and produce large white flower with clusters nearly a foot across. Flowers appear after the last of the shrub lilacs and last for about two weeks. Fragrance is heavy and sweet, great outdoors but can be overpowering in enclosed spaces.
Southern gardeners envy our lilacs, which don’t flower well where winters are mild. One of our most treasured landscape performances is about to begin; be sure to take time to stop and smell the lilacs.