1152 Syringa vulgarisCommon Names: common lilac, French lilac Family: Oleaceae (olive Family)
Sweet smelling lilacs are among the most cherished of old time garden favorites. The lilac's habit is a leggy, upright, irregular shrub to 20 ft (6 m) tall and wide; its deciduous leaves are opposite, 2-5 in (5-10 cm) long and nearly as wide; and its fruits are 0.6 in (1.5 cm) long dry capsules. But the flowers … ah the flowers: Extremely fragrant, lilac colored, tiny, but borne in flamboyant pyramidal panicles 4-8 in (10-20 cm) long. Did we say the flowers were very fragrant?
There are more than a thousand named clones of common lilac and its hybrids. Included are varieties with white, blue, violet, magenta, purple, pink and even yellow flowers, and those with double flowers, as well as lilac bushes that remain dwarf, get larger or are disease resistant. Many of the selections were developed in France in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Syringa vulgaris is native to southeastern Europe. It has become naturalized is North America and other temperate regions where it has been cultivated. Among more than 20 species, the most widely cultivated lilacs in North America are hybrids and selections of common lilac.
CultureLilacs prefer soils that are neutral to slightly alkaline. Remove old flowers when they fade so the plant uses its energy for growth and maintenance rather than for ripening seeds. Lilacs flower on old wood; if pruning is required, it should be done immediately after flowering is finished, before next year's flower buds have formed. Light: A lilac bush deserves one of the best positions in the landscape – in full sun. Moisture: Lilacs generally need little or no supplemental watering. They like a rich, moist soil but do not tolerate constantly wet soils nor soils that are acidic. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 7. There are some lilac cultivars that are said to grow in zone 3. Lilacs require a period of chilling and a few frosty nights in order to bloom well the following spring. Recent introductions developed in California are said to be "low chill" and might be grown in zone 8. These include 'Lavender Lady', 'Blue Boy' and 'Angel White'. Propagation: Common lilac spreads by suckering and the babies can be dug up and replanted. Note, however, that some selections are grafted onto seedling rootstocks, and of course suckers from these will be of the rootstock and not from the desired scion. Young, fast growing stem tips can be rooted under mist. Lilacs also are easy to propagate by layering.
Lilacs are robust and resilient, often persisting on old homesteads and abandoned gardens long after the folks have moved to the city. Position lilacs near the house and around doorways so their fragrance can be appreciated. Use them as specimen shrubs, in shrub borders, or in informal hedges.
There are thousands of cultivated lilac hybrids and selections from a couple dozen wild species. Besides common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), other commonly cultivated lilac species are Chinese lilac (S. x chinensis), Meyer lilac (S. meyeri), Japanese tree lilac (S. reticulata), late lilac (S. villosa), Persian lilac (S. persica), littleleaf lilac (S. microphylla), and early lilac (S. x hyacinthiflora). Numerous named selections are available from each of these naturally occurring species.
I acquired a baby iguana when I was a kid growing up in Upstate New York and the only thing he would eat (in season) was lilac blossoms from my mom’s lilac tree by the front steps. The glorious variety of beautiful and fragrant lilacs available to northern gardeners is almost enough to make a southern gardener move north.
Steve Christman 6/2/12; updated 5/17/17