Lilacs: Spring's Favorite Perfume
Generations of bouquets
Each spring, Midwesterners revel anew in the sight and scent of lilacs. With just a little care, this easy shrub provides generations of bouquets. Flower clusters, studded with tiny florets, burst with fresh-blown hues that can defy the seven official color classifications of lilacs: white, violet, blue, lilac, pink, magenta and purple. Soil, light and weather affect the colors of about 2,000 cultivars.
We're most familiar with the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, which grows 8 to 20 feet tall. But the genus Syringa embraces 22 other species, including Syringa reticulata, the Japanese tree lilac, which grows to 30 feet, and S. meyeri 'Palibin', a dwarf Chinese shrub reaching 4 to 5 feet. Pictured: Syringa vulgaris 'Andenken an Ludwig Spaeth', a purple lilac dating from 1883 that's still a popular choice.
In sync with the Midwest
Lilacs are perfectly in sync with our Midwest winters. Most varieties need a cold dormancy period of at least 850 hours (about 35 days) at temperatures below 45 degrees to flower. Each species and variety has its own bloom season (classified as early, mid and late). If you plant the right types, you could have lilacs in bloom for several weeks, ending with the Japanese tree lilac.
Easy to grow
All lilacs are easy to grow if placed in well-drained soils where they'll receive at least six hours of sun a day. Once established, lilacs can thrive even in hot, dry, windy places.
Trends with lilac breeders include creating varieties with larger blooms, such as 'Znamya Lenina', or double petals, such as 'Rochester'. Bicolored varieties also attract attention.
Smaller lilacs for suburban yards are popular, including some introduced by Nebraska grower Max Peterson: 'Red Pixie', reaching about 5 feet tall with a red flower fading to pink, and 'Beth', a white selection reaching 4 to 5 feet.
A lilac for everyone
There's a lilac to please everyone. The next slides showcase a few of the colors and types to choose from. Pictured: 'Sensation', from 1938, a favorite because of the white rim on the deep-purple florets.
The pink S. hyacinthiflora 'Fenelon' lilac (left) is among the first to bloom. Because it may be difficult to find, look for S. hyacinthiflora 'Maiden's Blush' or S. vulgaris 'Edward J. Gardner', two other great early-blooming pinks. Hyacinthiflora types also provide good fall leaf color.
Named for an important French lilac hybridizer, the double-petal florets of 'Victor Lemoine' (left) are classified as lilac but can look blue or pink.
The Rochester white lilac, named for the New York state community that's the site of a huge lilac festival, is the parent of many newer varieties. For a shorter white, try 'Avalanche', which grows about 9 feet tall and sports large florets. 'Angel White' (left) grows up to 10 feet and can handle both hot and cold climates.
Once known as the bluest lilac, 'President Lincoln' (left) produces lots of suckers. For a better growth habit and blue flowers, try 'Wedgwood Blue'.
Notable Midwest lilacs
North Dakota lilac breeder Neal Holland originated size and color breakthroughs that were introduced to the public by Bailey Nurseries in Saint Paul. The Fairytale series hybrids -- Tinkerbelle, Prince Charming, Thumbelina (left) and Sugar Plum Fairy -- often repeat bloom and grow up to 6 feet tall.
Another Midwest lilac is the 'Prairie Petite', developed at the University of Nebraska. 'Prairie Petite' is one of the smallest lilacs, about 3 feet wide and tall with single purple florets. Drought- and heat-tolerant, it can be grown in a container.
Care and pruning
Left to their own devices, lilac bushes can become a bit straggly. See whether yours gets at least six hours of full sun per day. If not, move it or plant a new one (which can take up to three years to flower).
Don't be afraid to prune. How you prune this year affects next year, as lilacs set their buds on last year's wood. The best time is right after the last flower turns crispy brown. Remove each flower stalk and unruly branches that are too tall or floppy. Then stop.
If you prune in spring before the lilac blooms, you will get few or no flowers.
Blooming may suffer if you apply fertilizer with too much nitrogen, which promotes foliage growth at the expense of flowers. Avoid the area around lilacs when you fertilize your lawn. If you want to fertilize lilacs, try a bloom-booster in which the second of the three numbers (the nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio) on the package is approximately twice as high as the first number.
If your lilac has lots of old wood, encourage new growth with rejuvenation pruning. For vigorous new limbs, cut back one-third of the old wood to the ground each year for three years.
Cut lilacs stay fresh only a few days. For the best bouquets, cut in the early morning. Use a pruner; the branches don't snap off easily. Make crisscross cuts at the bottom of each branch, but don't crush the stem. Having more surface area allows the stem to take up more water.
Immediately plunge the cut ends into a bucket of warm water to condition the stems. In a clean vase, add a floral preservative to warm water. Trim off any leaves that will be underwater. Recut the stem ends while they're underwater in the bucket before arranging. Change the water in the vase daily.
Lilac festivals and parks
The lovely lilac is celebrated and displayed around the Midwest. Peak bloom times vary from year to year; call ahead.
Several pictures in this lilac slideshow, including the one at left, were taken at Ewing Park's lilac arboretum in Des Moines. It's usually best in May.
Visit hundreds of lilacs at Longenecker Gardens, University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison.
The annual Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is in June at Mackinac Island, Michigan.
The annual Lilac Time Festival is held in May at Lilacia Park in Lombard, Illinois.
Many lilacs are available from garden centers. To mail-order lilacs mentioned in this slideshow (no source carries all cultivars), try Fox Hill Lilac Nursery, Forestfarm, or Syringa Plus. A good reference book is Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia by Fr. John L. Fiala, available at bookstores or through websites such as Timber Press.