Lovely Lilacs

“Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes

Old fashioned lilacsAside from roses, there is no flower as beautiful and aromatic as lilacs. Lilacs have a distinctive, memorable fragrance. When the smell of lilacs heralds the arrival of spring, where does the fragrance take you? For me it is to the farmhouse of my grandmother when I was a child. My grandmother’s lilacs were the old fashioned lavender variety. Mother of 18 children, my grandmother had neither the time nor the energy to maintain her lilacs. Nonetheless they reliably continued to produce their fragrant, beautiful blossoms year after year. When I smell lilacs, I feel content and I smile.

In my Grandmother’s day, lilacs came in just two colors; purple/lavender and white.   They all bloomed just before Memorial Day. Now there are over 1000 varieties that vary in their color, habit, bloom size, shape and flowering times. The new varieties vary widely in size from small 4 to 8 foot varieties to small trees, growing to up to 30 feet.

The true lover of lilacs is in luck because nowadays it is possible to prolong the enchantment of lilacs by growing early, mid and late summer blooming lilac varieties.  You can keep lilacs blooming in your yard for up to six weeks. For early bloom, try Syringa.vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’, a double magenta. Mid-summer lilacs include S. vulgaris ‘Monge’, a dark reddish purple, and S. vulgaris ‘Firmament’, a fine blue. Late-season beauties include S. x prestoniae ‘Miss Canada’, a reddish pink, and S. x prestoniae ‘Donald Wyman’, a single purple.

Native to Eastern Europe (the Balkans and Turkey), the common lilac, with its heart shaped leaves and large flowers, was introduced to Western Europe before 1600. Lilacs were introduced into the United States in the mid 1750’s. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew them in their gardens. The oldest living lilacs in North American are believed to have been planted around 1750 in Portsmouth, N.H, making them over 250 years old!

All lilacs belong to the genus Syringa. There are about 20 species; two derived from Europe and the others from Asia, and hundred of cultivars. The common lilac and hybrids of it were so frequently grown and selected by French nurserymen that France became synonymous with fine lilacs; we know that today as “French hybrids.” The term now commonly includes all high quality lilacs even though they may not have been bred in France.

Most lilac species hail from Asia, including two of the most popular choices for contemporary landscapes. Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ and S. meyeri ‘Palibin.’ The compact, later flowering ‘Miss Kim’ is noted for its intense fragrance; whereas the neat growth habit of ‘Palibin’ fits well in the modern garden.

Lilacs are hardy for Zones 3 to 7. They thrive in neutral to slightly alkaline soil. Lilacs won’t bloom if they are over-fertilized. They can handle a handful of all-purpose 10-10-10 fertilizer in late winter, but no more. Bountiful blooms require full sun, at least 6 hours per day.

Plant in early spring or fall, although the latter is preferred. You can get a plant from a nursery or you can plant a sucker, or offshoot, of the root system of a lilac bush.

The best time to plant suckers is before buds emerge in the spring or after the leaves have dropped from the shrub in fall. Find a sucker ideally 2 to 3 feet tall. Dig down around the sucker with a spade. You’ll find a connecting root leading back to the main stem. Cut this root off just outside the sucker’s root ball. Remove the sucker with as many roots as possible and plant in a big pot with potting soil or directly in the ground. Water well.

If your plant is container-grown, spread out the roots as you settle the plant into the ground. Set the plant 2 to 3 inches deeper than it grew in the nursery, and work topsoil in around the roots. Water well. Then fill the hole with more topsoil.

Lilacs bloom on old wood, so it’s critical to prune in the spring right after they bloom. Remove any dead wood. Remove the small suckers. Cut back weak branches to a strong shoot. Cut back tall canes to eye height.   Severe pruning results in loss of blooms for one to three years.

Mickale Carter
Master Gardener Intern

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