How to Plant and Care for Lilacs

Learn why the old-fashioned lilac is now popular among modern-day gardeners.
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A favorite shrub of mothers and grandmothers everywhere, lilacs bring back sentimental memories. Their beautifully fragrant flowers are the harbingers of spring. And now that heat-tolerant cultivars are available, these old-fashioned shrubs are back on the horticultural hot list.

Lilac Selections

Traditionally considered cold-climate shrubs, lilacs are catching on with gardeners in milder climates. The 'Descanso' hybrids tolerate higher temperatures. They don't require the cold-winter dormancy that many other lilacs need. 'California Rose' also performs well in warm climates and the Northwest. It has abundant rose-pink flowers that offer a tremendous fragrance.

Although the word "lilac" may conjure up shades of purple, don't be afraid to move beyond the mauve. There are thousands of varieties that come in white, blue, pink and lavender. There are even selections that feature purple flowers with a white rim. 'Sensation' is a mid-season bloomer that makes a great focal point in the yard.

For true lilac lovers, the thought of only one flush of blooms in a growing season is a sad thing. To extend the bloom season in your garden, combine early-flowering selections with mid- and late-season bloomers.

Planting Lilacs

Here's the first rule of planting: lilacs need lots of space to grow. If you're planting a hedge, they'll need a spot at least seven to eight feet wide and ten feet wide for a shrub.

They also need at least six hours of sun a day to have excellent flowering. Provide a well-drained, alkaline soil. When planting, add a handful of lime with subsequent twice-a-year applications to keep the shrubs in peak condition.

To plant dig a hole about as deep as the pot is or even a little deeper so you can add some compost to the hole. Take the lilac out of the pot and score the roots to get them ready to spread out in their new home. Put it in place and backfill the hole. For one more shot of nutrients, add a bit more compost on the soil surface. Water thoroughly. Once the shrub is established, let nature take over the watering duties; most lilacs are drought-resistant.

Lilac Varieties

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'Sensation' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’)

Plant 'Sensation' lilac for a showstopping spring display. Fragrant flower clusters feature single purple blooms edged in white. Blooms open in mid-spring on plants that grow 8 to 10 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide. 'Sensation' is hardy in Zones 2 to 7. Occasionally flowers may revert to solid white.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'President Grevy' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘President Grevy’)

Double the petals make this lilac a real beauty in the garden. Blooms are lilac-blue, sweetly fragrant and up to 10 inches long. This is a French lilac type that flowers in mid-May. Shrubs form a multi-stemmed plant. Use it as a backdrop for other plantings or plant several together for an informal screen. Plants grow 10 to 12 feet tall and wide and are hardy in Zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Tinkerbelle Lilac Tree Form (Syringa ‘Bailbelle’)

Count on standard or tree form lilacs to bring the beauty and fragrance of these beautiful shrubs into the smallest gardens. Tinkerbelle lilac opens wine-red flower buds in late spring. The blooms beckon butterflies and exude a spicy perfume. This tree form lilac reaches 8 feet tall with a spread of 4 to 5 feet. It’s hardy in Zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Beauty of Moscow' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’)

A Russian lilac, 'Beauty of Moscow' embodies flower power. Delicate pink buds burst to reveal fully double white flowers filled with fragrance. Plants grow strongly, reaching 10 to 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide. This lilac is hardy in zones 3 to 7 and creates a beautiful specimen shrub.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Bloomerang Dark Purple' Lilac (Syringa x ‘SMSJBP7’)

If you can’t get enough of pretty lilac blooms, you’ll love 'Bloomerang' lilacs. These lilacs flower in spring and rebloom in summer and fall. The spring show is the strongest, but the rebloom is eye-catching, too. Plants form flowers on new wood, so wait to trim these lilacs until immediately after spring bloom. Look for a lavender 'Bloomerang', too. Plants are hardy in zones 3 to 7 and grow 4 to 6 feet tall and wide—an ideal size for a fragrant flowering hedge.

Photo By: Image courtesy of ProvenWinners.com

First Editions 'Snowdance' Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Bailnce’)

Discover the tree side of lilacs. Japanese tree lilacs bear creamy white flowers in early summer that cast a sweet perfume on the air. Broad leaves cast good shade cover. This particular hybrid boasts a pest- and disease-free pedigree. 'Snowdance' trees grow 18 feet tall and 20 feet wide with a strong vase shape. Plant solo or in groups. This lilac is hardy in zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'President Lincoln' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘President Lincoln’)

Choose 'President Lincoln' lilac for a true Wedgewood blue lilac hue. These flower clusters are richly fragrant and open in mid-spring. Plants readily produce basal shoots, forming a flowering thicket that makes a nice informal hedge or screen. This lilac is hardy in zones 3 to 7 and spreads 8 to 10 feet tall and wide.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Charles Joly' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’)

This is an older French lilac introduced in 1896 that remains popular today—and is actually considered one of the best French hybrids. Bud color is a striking deep purple, opening to reveal double magenta-hued blooms with a strong fragrance. Plants tend to sucker, which makes them an excellent choice for an informal screen. This lilac grows 10 to 12 feet tall and 8 to 10 wide and is hardy in Zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Mount Baker'; 'Pocahontas' Lilac (Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Mount Baker’; ‘Pocahontas’)

This pair of early-flowering lilacs open blooms about a week before French varieties. 'Mount Baker' unfurls single white blossoms; on 'Pocahontas', deep maroon-purple buds open to single deep violet florets. These shrubs flower profusely, growing 10 to 12 feet tall and wide. Plants are hardy in zones 2 to 7. Best use in the landscape is as a tall background shrub.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Golden Eclipse' Lilac (Syringa reticulata ‘Golden Eclipse’)

You may grow this Japanese tree lilac for its creamy white blooms, but you’ll appreciate its variegated foliage when the flower show finishes. New leaves are green with a dark center. As leaves mature, edges shift to bright gold. This lilac grows to tree size, reaching 18 to 24 feet tall and 8 to 14 feet wide. Plants are hardy in Zones 4 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Miss Canada' Lilac (Syringa ‘Miss Canada’)

'Miss Canada' is a late-flowering lilac, opening single rose blooms in mid-June. If you love pink, this is the brightest pink you’ll find among the late-flowering lilac types. This shrub doesn’t sucker, so you get a strong specimen when you add it to the landscape. Plants grow 6 to 9 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide. Winter hardiness is superb, with plants surviving in zones 2 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’)

Red-purple buds open to reveal single blooms in shades of pale lilac on dwarf Korean lilac. Flowers are fragrant, and when a hedge of these plants are in bloom, the air is heavy with perfume. These dwarf plants grow wider than tall, reaching 4 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide. They make a wonderful hedge that’s easy to maintain. Plants are hardy in Zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Ludwig Spaeth' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Andenken an Ludwig Spaeth’)

Heavily fragrant flowers appear on 'Ludwig Spaeth' lilac in early summer, extending the blooming season. This old cultivar debuted in 1883, and it still earns rave reviews as one of the best purple lilacs on the market. Shrubs grow 10 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide. Plants are hardy in zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Mme. Lemoine' Lilac (Syringa vulgaris ‘Mme. Lemoine’)

Plantsman Victor Lemoine developed many of the French lilac hybrids, and he named this white-flowered beauty 'Mme. Lemoine' after his wife. Blossoms are double, fragrant and appear in mid-spring. Plants grow 8 to 10 feet tall and wide and are hardy in zones 3 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Scent and Sensibility' Pink Lilac (Syringa ‘SMSXPM’)

Discover a reblooming dwarf lilac with fragrant pink blooms in 'Scent and Sensibility' pink lilac. This shrub flowers strongest in spring and offers scattered rebloom in summer and fall. Plants form flowers on new wood, so wait to trim these lilacs until immediately after spring bloom. Plants are hardy in Zones 3 to 7 and grow 2 to 3 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide—the perfect size for a dwarf flowering hedge.

Photo By: Image courtesy of ProvenWinners.com

Asessippi Lilac (Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Asessippi’)

The old-fashioned beauty 'Asessippi' lilac was developed about 1935 in Manitoba, Canada, which means it survives tough winters. Plants are hardy in zones 2 to 7. Flower buds open a week before common lilacs, unfurling to reveal single lavender blooms with a rich fragrance. These shrubs flower profusely, growing 10 to 12 feet tall and wide. This lilac works well in the landscape as a specimen or background shrub.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

'Declaration' Lilac (Syringa ‘Declaration’)

Deep reddish-purple flowers appear in clusters up to 15 inches long on the early bloomer 'Declaration'. Buds open about 7 to 10 days before common lilacs. Fragrance on this beauty is strong; plan on cutting branches for bouquets. Plants grow 6 to 7 feet tall and wide and are hardy in zones 4 to 7. Use this lilac as a specimen shrub or an informal hedge.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Common Purple Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

Common purple lilac is the old-fashioned favorite that has won hearts through the years. The richly fragrant, lavender to purple blooms make wonderful cut flowers, scenting an entire home with their floral perfume. This shrub grows 12 to 15 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide and makes a wonderful hedge or screen in the landscape. Plants are hardy in zones 2 to 7.

Photo By: Image courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.

Pruning

You'll know it's time to sharpen the pruners when you start wondering, "Why isn't my lilac blooming like it used to?" One reason your shrub may not be blooming is that you're not cutting off the spent blossoms. As soon as the blossoms fade, snip them back to the leaf, just past the bloom. The bigger the bush, the bigger the job. However, this is an essential task in rejuvenating growth.

Occasionally, you may need to prune more than just spent blossoms. When your shrubs get too tall to enjoy the blossoms, it's time to prune and rejuvenate the lilac. You could call this the "June prune." After enjoying the flowers in the spring, cut back one or two of the older, more raggedy limbs to the ground with a handsaw. This encourages healthier growth and more vigorous blooming of the plants.

Propagation

If you want more lilacs, propagate. To do this, take a shovel and cut a shoot from the mother plant in the spring. Then wait until the fall before lifting it out. This way it has a chance to get a few roots growing, and the plant will be more successful. It's those shoots that ensure the lilacs endure from season to season.

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