One of nature’s long-lived symbols of spring, lilacs bring fragrance, beauty, and nostalgia to every landscape they adorn.
Beloved by bees and butterflies, a quality cover for birds and wildlife, and one of the most cherished blooms in America, the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) embodies everything we love about sweet, old-fashioned flowers. After all, is there any other fragrance that says “spring” as emphatically as the glorious scent of the lilac?
Lilacs are an intrinsic part of our collective horticultural heritage. The glory of their annual blooms may seem fleeting, but the longevity of the shrubs is what establishes them as a permanent fixture in our gardens and memories. These long-lived shrubs can survive for decades or even centuries, handed down through the generations. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, grew lilacs at Monticello beginning in 1771; a small group of these original lilacs is said to still grow on the estate to this day. The same may be true of the lilacs mentioned in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Farmer Boy. Lilacs growing today on the Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York, are believed to descend from the 19th-century lilacs described in her book.
Maybe lilacs remind you of the lilac-scented perfume your grandmother used to wear, or the sight of a lilac shrub in bloom takes you back to memories of the old family farmhouse. Nostalgia is undeniably at the heart of our deep-seated affection for lilacs, but nostalgia isn’t the only reason we love these splendid shrubs.
A Closer Look
The world abounds with gorgeous flowers, but the delicate beauty of the lilac certainly ranks it among the most superior. Lilacs belong to the genus Syringa (which means “tube” or “pipe”), and there are about 20 species and about 2,000 lilac cultivars. S. vulgaris is the most widely known species — hence its designation as the “common lilac” — but other popular species include Japanese tree lilacs (S. reticulata) and dwarf-type lilacs (S. meyeri, S. pubescens ssp. patula), among others.
The common lilac arrived in North America with the early colonists in the 17th century, and it’s been a firmly established part of American horticulture ever since. A deciduous shrub that typically reaches 8 to 15 feet tall, with flowers that form single or double florets in cluster-like panicles, S. vulgaris bursts into bloom in the spring, filling the air with its beloved floral fragrance.
In the early centuries of lilac cultivation, single florets were the norm, but the efforts of French horticulturist Victor Lemoine in the 19th century introduced the world to the beauty of double-flowered lilac hybrids. To this day, his extensive work has made the term “French-hybrid” virtually synonymous with the common lilac.
The fragrance and beauty are the hallmark attributes of the lilac, but the assortment of colors, in varying shades of pastels, are equally as stunning.
When we envision lilacs, we tend to think of lilac-colored cultivars, but lilac-colored lilacs are just the beginning. The International Lilac Society recognizes seven colors, represented by Roman numerals: I (White); II (Violet); III (Blue); IV (Lilac); V (Pink); VI (Magenta); and VII (Purple). An eighth color, Creamy Yellow, is recognized in some European organizations.
If there’s one thing horticulturists agree on, it’s that lilacs are easy to grow. Unlike some temperamental plants that are finicky with regard to soil, water, and light requirements, lilacs tend to thrive, even with limited attention. That’s why you’ll see lilacs in full bloom on long-abandoned homesteads, continuing to bloom despite years of neglect.
Full sun is the ideal for S. vulgaris, so plant your lilacs accordingly. The partial sun may produce some success, but the quality of the flowers will likely suffer. In terms of soil requirements, common lilacs do best in neutral to alkaline soil that’s regularly fertilized and well-drained.
Generally speaking, lilacs prefer cooler climates and are best suited for growth in Zones 3 through 7. A few ultra-hardy cultivars will bloom in Zone 2, and some new “mild-climate” lilac cultivars, such as ‘Bloomerang,’ are said to be suitable for Zones 8 and 9, but the traditional S. vulgaris cultivars don’t tolerate heat and humidity.
Annual gentle pruning and occasional extensive pruning is helpful to the overall, long-term success of your lilacs. (Older, overgrown lilacs may benefit from extensive pruning, in which one-third of the oldest branches are cut to the ground each year for three years. By the end of the third year, the plant will be rejuvenated with young, healthy shoots.) It’s very important that you time your pruning appropriately; any pruning should take place once the blooming period has ended but before the plant has set buds for the following spring. This prevents the pruning process from diminishing the number of blooms your plant produces the next season.
Lilacs are remarkably hardy and tend to have few issues, but are susceptible to bacterial blight and powdery mildew. Combat both diseases by situating new plants with sufficient airflow in mind, especially if you live in a humid region. In addition, remove any branches that are infected with bacterial blight, making sure to disinfect pruners between cuts.
It’s possible to propagate lilacs from seed, but it’s a somewhat complicated and time-consuming process. Propagating from stem cuttings is easier and much more common, and lilacs are also happy to oblige by sending up an assortment of shoots and suckers that you can transplant and nurture to maturity.
The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University features nearly 400 lilac plants representing more than 140 cultivars, and eager visitors converge on the grounds for Lilac Sunday each spring. Other arboretums and botanical gardens throughout the United States also feature lilac festivals and springtime celebrations that allow individuals to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of lilacs at the peak of their seasonal glory.
If there isn’t a lilac festival in your neck of the woods, here are a few tried-and-true cultivars that have been cherished in gardens for decades.
This beloved blue lilac has graced gardens for more than a century, thanks to its brilliant blooms and stunning fragrance. Developed in 1916 by John Dunbar of the Highland Park Conservancy in Rochester, New York, ‘President Lincoln’ is a single cultivar that boasts beauty and history.
The Boston Globe reported in 1937 that the ‘President Lincoln’ lilac was “among the showiest shrubs” in the collection at the Arnold Arboretum.
You can never have too many blue lilacs, so be sure to check out ‘President Grévy,’ one of Victor Lemoine’s famous French hybrids, developed in 1886. It’s a stunning double lilac in a beautiful color.
‘President Grévy’ is known for its fragrant flowers and vigorous growth. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Khomelka.
Another of Victor Lemoine’s stunning cultivars, ‘Edith Cavell’ is a bold and beautiful double white lilac, developed in 1916. It averages a height of 8 to 10 feet.
A midseason lilac, ‘Edith Cavell ’ features large, full trusses of white flowers. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Salicyna.
‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ (Beauty of Moscow)
A longtime favorite of lilac enthusiasts, this exquisite cultivar features pinkish-white blooms and impressive fragrance. It was developed by Russian hybridizer Leonid A. Kolesnikov in the 1940s and is said to have some resistance to powdery mildew.
‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ is a hardy double cultivar. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Kor!An (Andrej Korzun).
‘Belle de Nancy’
Another 19th-century favorite, ‘Belle de Nancy’ boasts mauve-pink double florets and bacterial blight resistance. It’s a true beauty and a lovely addition to any garden.
‘Belle de Nancy’ is a popular choice for cut flowers. Photo by GAP Photos/Visions.
For a lilac that features a brilliant burst of magenta blooms, look no further than ‘Charles Joly.’ Double florets, disease resistance, and deep magenta-purple flowers make this cultivar a definite winner.
‘Charles Joly’ features stunning magenta blooms. Photo by GAP Photos/Rob Whitworth.
Of course, these cultivars represent only a handful of the available options, so don’t stop there! The world of lilacs awaits you — and it’s a world filled with glorious pastels, sweet scents, and unparalleled beauty.