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In Love with Lilacs

The timeless, swoonworthy lilac is the symbol of spring—in the garden and in the vase.
'Firmament' lilac
Lilacs range in pigments from bright white to deep purple.
'Sensation' lilac
Rows of lilac bushes traditionally formed windbreaks in certain parts of the country.

In Love with Lilacs  

Whether you have childhood memories of playing beneath Grandmother’s overgrown lilacs or you first noticed Syringa vulgaris at a local nursery or botanical garden, one thing is certain—the best way to celebrate springtime is by inhaling the intoxicating fragrance of lilacs. 

Lilacs have been in vogue since the 19th Century, especially Syringa vulgaris, the flagship species that fathered (and mothered) most of the hybrids. Named for the Greek word “syrinx,” meaning hollow stem, ancient pale lavender lilacs were employed as pipes. Although the first deep purple lilac was chronicled in 1683 and the prototypical true white lilac was created in 1851, the bulk of work with lilacs didn’t get under way until after 1878 when the French firm Victor Lemoine et Fils (and his wife as well) forged glorious double-flower, big-plume lilacs that quickly became popular throughout the world.  

Success with Growing Lilacs: 

Plant bare-root lilacs after thoroughly soaking roots for 24 hours. Place roots of multiple lilacs 5 feet apart. The planting holes should be 50 percent wider than the root system. 

Water every three days for the first few years to establish, especially in a dry area. Water with a soaker hose to provide moisture directly to the root area about once a week if needed. Taper off watering by September as the lilacs begin to drop their leaves and go dormant through winter. 

Fertilize sparingly before fall or winter precipitation, using a controlled fertilizer such as 0–15–10 nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). For young plants, 0–25–0 NPK is recommended. 

Prune after harvesting flowers in spring. This is when the lilacs start setting their buds for the following season, so if pruning doesn’t take place by summer, postpone until after the next bloom cycle. Lilacs need new growth to set good blooms. Overgrown lilacs need to have a third of the old growth pruned back every season for three years to rejuvenate.  

Plant-At-A-Glance 

Common name: Lilac 

Botanical name: Syringa vulgaris 

Size: 8–15 feet tall and 6–12 feet wide 

Colors: Lilac, as well as blues, purples, pinks, and white 

Bloom time: Flowers gloriously in May 

Hardiness: Zones 3–7 

Conditions: Lilacs are easily grown. Give them full sun and good drainage. 

Planting: Transplant in early spring. Propagate by cuttings immediately after blooming. 

Watering: Lilacs are drought-tolerant; soggy conditions can lead to problems. 

Fertilizing: Lilacs like a fertile soil, but blossoms might be diminished if the shrub is given a high-nitrogen fertilizer in spring. 

Best feature: Although lilacs can get tall and leggy, their fragrant flowers redeem them. They will always be a favorite with country gardeners. 

Beware: Lilacs are prone to powdery mildew, borers, and bacterial blight, also called lilac blight. 

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