7 Things to Know about Lilac Bushes

To celebrate the lilac bushes putting on their glorious, fragrant show this time of year, here are seven things to know about these garden favorites
lilac blooms
Photo courtesy of Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau

In the short story “Lilacs,” Kate Chopin wrote, “When the scent of the lilac blossoms began to permeate the air, Sister Agathe would turn many times during the day to the window; upon her face the happy, beatific expression with which pure and simple souls watch for the coming of those they love.”

We could not say it better ourselves. To celebrate the lilac bushes putting on their glorious, fragrant show this time of year, here are seven things to know about growing and caring for these garden favorites.

1 | Climate for Lilacs

Most lilac varieties including the Common or French Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) prefer cool climates (zones 3–7), though some tolerate warmer locales. Cold winters trigger a period of dormancy, which they need to bloom. The timing depends on variety and location, but generally, lilac bushes bloom in the spring and only for two weeks.

2 | Sun, Soil and Fertilizer

Lilac bushes are one of Arkansas-based landscape and garden designer P. Allen Smith’s 15 favorite fragrant plants for the garden. “Lilacs bloom best when planted in full sun and well-drained, alkaline soil,” he told Flower. “Plants should be fertilized with a general fertilizer in early spring and then again after the bloom cycle. To encourage blooms, substitute the general fertilizer with super phosphate, or a fertilizer high in phosphorus, for your early spring feeding.” 

Bouquet of lilacs of varying colors including light blue, purple and a combination of white and pink
Several varieties of lilacs, including ‘Wedgwood Blue’ and ‘Belle de Moscou’ (with white and pink blooms), at the Farm at Oxford in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Mara Tyler

Pennsylvania flower farmer Mara Tyler of the Farm at Oxford also shared her lilac-growing tips, starting with full sun. “Don’t overfeed the lilac,” she said, “but we do give it a dose of compost annually and also a 3-5-4 organic local fertilizer annually. Since we are looking for blooms from our lilacs, we want to encourage blooms versus leafy growth over time. Also, once we plant small lilac babies, it can be 3–4 years before we are really able to harvest off a bush. They are slower growers the first few years but seem to really leap around year 4–5 in growth.”

When it comes to the time of year for planting lilac bushes, Tyler said, “We plant in the spring or fall, whenever we have the time.” However the time you plant does affect care. “As with any plant, if you plant in spring, make sure to keep the plant well watered through the heat of summer. In fall the plants usually get runoff from snow or winter rains and settle in well.”

3 | Pruning Lilacs

Lilac bushes set buds on old wood, so prune and shape them right after they finish blooming. Otherwise, said Tyler, you risk cutting off next year’s flowers.

White bench under flowering lilac bush
Lilacs drape over a bench in the apple orchard of a historic estate in Pittsford, New York, designed by American landscape architect Fletcher Steele. Photo by Mick Hales

4 | Varieties of Lilac Bushes

Lilac flowers may be single or double, the leaves solid green or variegated, and the plants dwarf or standard. Lilac flower colors may be white, violet, pink, blue, and lilac (of course) to red-purple, dark purple, and even a yellow variety known as “Primrose.” One of the most fantastic lilac varieties planted on Mackinac Island in recent decades, known as “Sensation,” features picotee flowers with white edges on red-purple. While there’s a whole wide world of lilac varieties to embrace, here are a few options to consider if you have specific requirements.

  • Warmer climates (zone 8): Plant ‘Miss Kim’ or ‘Blue Skies.’ Both available from Monrovia.
  • Double flowers: ‘Scentara Double Blue’ has double, blue-toned purple flowers. Available from Proven Winners.
  • Early bloomsConsider ‘Excel,” which puts on its big show between February and March. Sold by Fox Hill Lilac Nursery.
  • Repeat blooms: Opt for ‘Josee’ with its long, lavender-pink panicles that can bloom until frost under the right conditions. Available from Spring Hill Nursery.
  • White flowers:  Double-flowered ‘Madame Lemoine’ is one of the most common whites. Available from Nature Hills.  In warm climates go for ‘Angel White.’  Available from Monrovia.
  • Pink flowers: ‘Miss Canada’ puts on a late show of reddish buds that open to rosy pink blossoms. Available from Monrovia.
  • Yellow flowering lilac:  ‘Primrose’ starts with showy yellow buds and has creamy white to pale yellow flowers. Sold by Spring Hill Nursery.
  • Picotee flowered lilac: ‘Sensation’ mentioned above has clusters of white edged, reddish purple flowers. Available from Nature Hills.

5 | Lilac Origins

Lilac bushes are not native to North America. The Common Lilac originated in Eastern Europe in the mountains of Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. For centuries, the Turks cultivated the species. Then, in the 1500s, lilac bushes arrived in Vienna and Paris. The French developed so many varieties that Common Lilac is often called French hybrid or simply French Lilac. Finally, these European specimens made the journey to the New World, and lilac bushes graced the gardens of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

white lilac arrangement in white pitcher
A simple arrangement of white lilacs in a white pitcher from LILACS: BEAUTIFUL VARIETIES FOR HOME AND GARDEN by Naomi Slade. Photo: Georgianna Lane, courtesy of Gibbs Smith Books

6 | Lilac Floral Arrangements

If you clip blooms from your lilac bushes for an arrangement, extend their freshness by changing the water in the vases daily and mist their petals, which can absorb water.

7 | A Whole Island of Lilacs

In Michigan, more than 100 varieties of Common Lilac, along with two other species, grow on Mackinac Island (pronounced “Mackinaw”). Cold winters and sunny, warm summers with adequate precipitation provide ideal growing conditions. Plus, lilacs love the island’s well-drained soil made up of a limestone rock base. Also, the International Lilac Society has donated numerous specimens over the years.

Lilacs in bloom on a blue-sky day in Mackinac Island
Photo courtesy of Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau

The oldest lilac bushes on Mackinac date to the 1870s and grow up to 20 feet tall and 27 inches thick—so large locals call them “lilac trees.” During the blooming season the first two weeks of June, the town celebrates with a 10-day Lilac Festival, held every year since 1949. There’s even a Lilac Festival Queen and a Grand Parade. If you visit this quaint community, plan to get around by foot, bicycle or horse. Cars were banned in 1898.

Lilacs book by Naomi Slade

Bonus | A Book of Lilacs

What better way to celebrate the change of seasons than with the flower that seems to announce the transition from spring to summer? Lilacs have long been a beloved flower and source of inspiration for artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. In Lilacs: Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden (Gibbs Smith, April 2022), the seventh book in the Gibbs Smith flower series, Naomi Slade offers no-fuss gardening tips to demonstrate that anyone can grow these vibrant blooms. Exquisite photos by Georgianna Lane add plenty of visual inspiration as well.

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