Lovely Lilacs

A scent-imental favorite makes gardeners swoon

Lilacs

Story by Randi Jo Gause

A beacon of spring, lilacs have captured gardeners' hearts for centuries. Their show-stopping blooms and irresistible fragrance evoke memories of Grandma's garden and a nostalgia for seasons past. But this long-time garden favorite is not just another pretty posy.

"Lilacs are a wonderful choice for the landscape because they don't have just one pleasing quality – they have many," explains Lacey Ott, horticulturist and retail manager at Alaska Botanical Garden. "They have great early blooms in vivid colors, scented flowers that attract butterflies, cold hardiness, minimal pest and disease problems, and are low maintenance and long lived."

Known as Syringa, lilacs are characterized by pyramidal or conical clusters of flowers that flourish along gracefully arched, leafy branches that can range in height from three feet to 30 feet.

Originally only available in a handful of colors and varieties, there are now hundreds of lilac varieties ranging in color, size and scent to suit a range of preferences. The most common varieties bear the lilac's signature purple hues, though they also blossom in shades of blue, pink, white and yellow. Each variety effuses a unique scent, from breezy floral fragrances to more spicy aromas.

Among the popular lilac varieties, Sensation (Syringa vulgaris) is admired for its show-stopping, saturated purple flowers traced with a crisp white pinstripe, and the Beauty of Moscow (Syringa vulgaris) bears pink buds that give way to unique, double white flowers.

Planting lilacs

Spring or fall is the best time for planting lilac bushes. Choose an area with plenty of sun – "as much as possible for best bloom," notes Lorri Abel, owner of In The Garden Nursery.

Lilacs also need lots of space to grow. If you're planting more than one bush, check the plant tag of your particular variety to determine the best spacing: Space dwarf lilacs 4 to 6 feet apart; and larger varieties 10 to 15 feet apart. If planting lilacs in a hedge, leave 6 feet between each shrub.

Along with sun and space, lilacs are happiest in well-drained soil. (Neutral soil is ideal, but lilacs will tolerate soil with a pH of 6.5 to 8.5 if it is well-drained.) The shrubs do not like to get their feet (the roots) wet for a prolonged period of time. They do best on hillsides, slightly elevated areas, or level ground where there is good drainage. For lowlands, raised beds or mounds are good ways to get their roots above damp ground. 

For planting, dig a hole about as deep as the pot or a little deeper so you can add some compost and a handful of lime to the hole. After planting, add a bit more compost on the soil surface for another shot of nutrients. Water thoroughly.

Lilacs

"Planting at the correct depth and paying a lot of attention to watering the first few years is important," emphasizes Abel. "As with all shrubs, consider the eventual size and don't overplant."

Carefree days

Lilacs are a gardener's dream: low maintenance and reliable. Once established, lilacs are easy to care for, extremely tolerant and known for outliving their owners – even those without green thumbs.

Any care that is needed is minimal. "They should be dead-headed, but other than that, pruning is not necessary on a regular basis," says Ott. "If older shrubs become scraggly, a hard winter prune will rejuvenate it." Ott also recommends incorporating a small amount of lime and composted manure into the soil surrounding the lilac every other spring. Lilacs won't bloom if they're overfertilized, she warns. "If given excess nitrogen, they will produce an abundance of leafy growth at the expense of flower bud development."

Show posies

Lilacs are relatively short bloomers, lasting just a few weeks in the spring, but you can make the most of their brief showing by staggering a variety of early-, mid-, and late-blooming lilac varieties to enjoy them for up to six weeks. Or try planting the Bloomerang lilac (Syringa penda) which, true to its name, blooms twice each season – once in May and again in July.

Now for the blooms: Go big or go small? Dwarf lilac varieties at the peak of their bloom are spectacular and appropriately sized to serve as the focal point for smaller gardens, while larger varieties offer the versatility to function as a privacy hedge even while its flowers are not in bloom. Standing at four to eight feet tall, the Dwarf Korean (Syringa meyeri) is more petite than most lilacs, making it the perfect size to showcase as a specimen plant, while the Canadian lilac (Syringa prestoniae) reaches six to 12 feet tall and makes an ideal, moose-resistant privacy hedge.

Flaunt the lilac's fragrance by planting them in a garden nearby your home, or in containers near an outdoor entertainment area, or bring the cut flowers indoors to enjoy the fragrance up close.

Cut lilacs make a wonderful addition to any room and last about a week. For longest vase life, harvest them when the flowers on the panicle (that's the whole flowering part) are just starting to open, and "crush the woody stems with a hammer for easier water uptake," advises Ott. "Change the water in the vase every other day."

If you're trying to fill space in your garden and you're tired of growing fussy plants, take a tip from your grandmother and try this old-fashioned favorite. Lilacs will give you years of flowers that your children – and grandchildren – will appreciate and treasure.