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How to Grow: Lilacs
Learn about lilacs, including how to plant and grow them.
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How to Grow: Lilacs
Syringa vulgaris and hybrids
full sun, part sun
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Spring in many shade of blue, purple, red, pink and white
Mature Height x Spread
5 to 15 feet x 6 to 12 feet
attracts beneficials, attracts hummingbirds, deer resistant, drought tolerant
One of the signature shrubs of New England is the lilac. Spring in New England wouldn’t be the same without the fragrant, colorful, single or double lilac flowers in bloom in May. Some varieties will rebloom again in late summer. When grown en mass, such as at Arnold Arboretum in Boston, they put on quite an amazing display. The scented blooms make great flowers indoors. These tough shrubs are one of the hardiest in New England. They can grow into large shrubs if not pruned. There is even a tree form (S. reticulata) that’s a popular street tree. There are also more naturally dwarf, rounded species that make great foundation plants because they don’t get out of control.
When, Where and How to Plant
Purchase plants from local garden centers or take suckers from a friend or neighbor’s plant. Plant from spring to early fall in a full sun location for best flowering. Lilacs need a well-drained soil to survive. They grow best in fertile, slightly alkaline soil that’s been amended with compost. Space plants 6 feet apart.
Keep young plant well watered and mulched with wood chips or bark mulch to preserve the soil moisture and reduce weed competition. Once established, the plants are drought tolerant. Each spring add compost and an organic plant food. Over feeding plants may delay flowering.
Regional Advice and Care
Lilacs don’t bloom well due to poor soil water drainage or too much shade. Prune lilacs after flowering to remove dead blossoms and to keep the plant in bounds. If your lilac gets overgrown, prune back one-third of the branches to the ground each year, letting the suckers grow from the base, until the whole plant has been rejuvenated. Thin weak suckers each spring. Lilacs can get scale on their leaves and bark. Spray horticultural oil to control scale. Powdery mildew can make lilacs drop their leaves early. Spray Serenade organic fungicide to control it.
Companion Planting and Design
Lilacs make a great informal hedge. Select varieties that sucker freely. Plant more formal French hybrids as specimens on the corner of your house or in a mixed shrub border with other sun loving shrubs, such as viburnum and spirea. Plant rounded species, such the Meyer lilac, as a foundation plant. Plant the Japanese tree lilac as a street tree or specimen in the yard.
There are hundreds of lilacs varieties. Choose yours based on plant size, flower color and fragrance. ‘President Lincoln’ is a class blue flowering variety. ‘Charles Joly’ has magenta colored flowers. ‘Belle of Nancy’ is a double pink form. ‘Ludwig Spaeth’ is considered one of the best purple flowered varieties. ‘Miss Ellen Willmott’ is a classic double white form. ‘Sensation’ has unique purple flowers edged in white and ‘Primrose is an unusual yellow flowered variety.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
There is no more fragrant, spring flower than lilacs. Originating in Eastern Europe and Asia, the Latin name for lilac is Syringa, which means pipe in Turkish. The Turks would hollow out the stems of lilac bushes to make musical instruments. Lilacs became a popular American shrub with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planting them in their colonial gardens. Today, lilac festivals abound around the country. Rochester, New York is the self proclaimed Lilac Capital of the World. They grow more than 500 varieties and 1200 bushes all around the city.
Lilacs are low maintenance, except for the pruning. Most love to grow tall and after a few years the flowers can be out of reach for picking and enjoying. To prune an overgrown lilac, start after the blooms fade. If you wait too long and prune in July, you’ll remove the flower buds for next year’s crop. Prune 1/3 of the oldest, thickest stems to the ground. Allow new shoots from the base of the plant to grow up and replace them. Prune these new shoots to the desired height and after three years of this rotational pruning you’ll have a shorter, lilac shrub.
Now for this week’s tip. It’s rhubarb season. Not only does rhubarb make a great pie, it’s good for you too. Rhubarb has been found to have anti-oxidant, inflammatory and allergy properties. However, if your rhubarb is forming a flower stalk, cut it down. The stalk will take energy away from leaf and stem production. For a tasty drink, check out the rhubarb punch recipe below.
Rhubarb Punch (Thanks to Catherine Hughes for sharing this recipe)
4 cups rhubarb stems chopped
4 cups water
½ cup sugar
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup orange juice
Cook down the rhubarb in the water until soft. Add sugar, lemon juice, and orange juice. Mix well. Strain in cheesecloth or a colander to remove pulp. Another option is to blend the rhubarb solution in a blender to break up pulp. Serve chilled.