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GardenSMART :: Heaven Scent: Plant Lilacs For The Fragrance, But Enjoy The Romantic Shrub All Season Long

Heaven Scent: Plant Lilacs For The Fragrance, But Enjoy The Romantic Shrub All Season Long

By Kate Karam for Monrovia
Photographs courtesy of Monrovia

It may seem counter-intuitive to plant a large shrub that only flowers for a few weeks in late spring, but when you’re talking about lilacs—all haunting, sweet fragrance, heart-shaped, deep green leaves that add a lushness even as the flowers fade, and a well-mannered, easy-going nature—it’s maybe not so crazy. With seven colors and heights ranging from dwarf to hedgerow height, there’s a lovely lilac for nearly every garden.

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Lilacs are to the garden what Madeleines were to Proust. One whiff of the fragrance wafting from the flowers and it’s likely you’re back to the first time you smelled this strong, heady perfume. It’s an aroma that starts off sweet in the morning and intensifies to something richer and more seductive as the day grows warmer. Unforgettable, lilacs, that’s what you are.

Old-fashioned and with a romantic, tumbling habit when its branches are laden with clusters of blossoms, lilacs flower in one of seven colors depending on the variety: white, violet, blue, lavender, pink, magenta, and purple, with many shades of each and come in a range of sizes. It’s not uncommon in colder zones to find huge stands of old, mature common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) pretty much growing wild. Few gardens today could devote so much space to just lilacs, but even a solitary one is something pretty special.

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Dwarf and compact, Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin')
is a dazzling addition to a perennial border

Using lilacs in the landscape:

Apart from the flowers, this stately shrub would be worth planting for its well- mannered, hardy, and easy to grow nature. Pretty much impervious to insects and most diseases, they’re super attractive to pollinators, especially butterflies. Varieties range in size at maturity from 4-foot-tall dwarf bushy types to rangy, 20-foot-tall common lilacs to 30-foot trees. While one mature lilac is a statement maker, they look best if planted in groups. Use them for a sensational hedge, or plant them as striking accent shrubs in the lawn, at the back of a border, or against the house’s foundation.

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Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) needs room to stretch when planted
as a hedge. Plant them 10-feet apart on center; they’ll fill in in about five years.

With a bit of planning and attention to bloom time, you can plant early-, mid-, and late-season varieties that will blossom in succession (particularly if the weather is cool), yielding flowers for at least two months each spring.

Here’s a two really good combinations to plant for a longer season of blooms:

Pocahontas Canadian Lilac  
Common Purple Lilac
Miss Kim Korean Lilac

And

Declaration Lilac
Charles Joly Lilac
Ludwig Spaeth Lilac

Even if you have only a tiny space, you must find room for at least one. With so many colors and sizes to choose, where to start? Here are our picks for a variety with a smaller, more compact size, one with a unique bi-colored flower, and a third that’s a reliable re-bloomer (see our entire selection here)

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Josee Lilac

A dwarf lavender-pink lilac with continuous blooms that’s ideal as a foundation planting or in a mixed border. Up to 5 ft. tall and wide; Zones 3-9

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Sensation Lilac

An outstanding lilac noted for its large trusses of purplish-red florets edged in white, typically flowering in mid-May. Up to 10 ft. tall and 6 ft. wide; Zones 3-7

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Bloomerang® Dark Purple Lilac

This beauty blooms in spring, then reblooms from mid-summer through fall. Up to 6 ft. tall and wide; Zones 3-7

Seduced? Here’s what you need to get started:

  • At least 6 hours of full sun (If they lack enough light, lilacs will grow but will not flower as well)
  • While most lilacs will deal with average garden soil, they prefer fertile, humus-rich, fairly neutral, well-drained soil (add compost if your soil needs a boost).
  • Just a handful of balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) applied in late winter
  • While they don’t like wet feet, lilacs need steady moisture. Water if summer rains don’t happen
  • The ideal lilac shrub has about 10 canes and produces flowers at eye-level, which requires annual pruning. And, if flower clusters are getting smaller, it’s really, really time to prune!
  • Lilacs bloom on old wood so the time to prune is in spring, right after they bloom. Start by removing any dead wood, then prune out the oldest canes down to the ground and remove suckers at the same time (suckers are branches that sprout from the roots).

F.A.Q.’s:

Q.: I live in zone 8 or zone 9. Can I grow lilacs?
A.: Most lilacs need a long period of winter chill for buds to mature and bloom the following spring. The good news is that several cultivars including  ‘Old Glory’, ‘Blue Skies’, ‘Lavender Lady’ and ‘Angel White’ have been bred for warmer zones (by which we generally mean up to zone 8).

Q.: I planted a lilac and it isn’t flowering (much or at all)?
A.:  A little patience yields big rewards. Young lilacs can take up to 3 years to reach maturity and bear flowers.

Q.:  My neglected lilac is a misshapen monster. Can I make it pretty once more?
A.:  Yes, but be prepared for some work over a three-year period. The first year, choose the oldest, least productive third of the branches, and cut them all the way to the ground. Follow the same process in the second and third years. It might take a few years for your shrub to fully flower again. (But, so worth it.)

Q.:  How can I get my lilac into a tree form?
A.:  While most of us let our lilacs grow into dense shrubs, a lilac tree is a lovely addition to a small yard. Taller Syringa vulgaris cultivars such as 'Sensation’ and ‘President Lincoln’ would be perfect for this. Starting with a young shrub (about 3 years old, which is typical of what you’ll see sold at nurseries in a five-gallon container), remove the lower branches and let one stem develop. It might take 10 years before you have a fully-grown specimen tree, but it’ll be a wow.


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