All About Lilacs


I’ll admit up front that the lilac is my favorite shrub. It has been since I was a kid, and my grandma had a huge lilac hedge along her alley fence.

The lilac can grow up to twenty feet tall, and blooms in lilac, dark purple, pink, or white. It has dark green heart-shaped foliage, and grows from shoots that come up from the base of the plant. Lilacs prefer full sun, and they do best when planted in an area where they will get decent air circulation. Without good air circulation, lilacs are prone to powdery mildew. They bloom in late spring and early summer.

Lilacs are best planted along a pathway, or next to a porch where you can enjoy their scent the most. They do well as an informal hedge, or as single specimen plantings in a shrub border. I have both a common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and a dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri¬†‘Palibin’) in my yard, with plans to add a few more lilacs as time goes by.

As far as day-to-day care goes, give the lilac about an inch of water per week in its first season, and after it is established it will need little, if any, supplemental water. In early spring, sprinkle about a cup of granular organic fertilizer around the base, and foliar feed with diluted fish emulsion when the buds just start to leaf out. Do whatever pruning is necessary, and you will have a happy, healthy lilac.

Throughout May and June, prune off the spent blooms of your lilacs. This will increase flower production for the following year. You can prune your lilacs after they bloom. It is also a good idea to remove any suckers that come up around the base of the plant. If you have an old, overgrown lilac, you can rejuvenate it in about three years by removing about 1/3 of the thickest, oldest branches each year for three years. By the end of three years, you will have a lilac with young, healthy shoots. Also be sure to remove all of the dead branches from your lilac when you prune.

You can propagate new lilac bushes through layering. It is best to attempt layering in early spring, when the plant is growing its strongest. The best stems to use are those that are flexible, and are the result of the previous year’s growth. About 9 inches or so from the tip of the branch, shave a 1/4-inch slice of bark off of the bottom of the branch. Dip the wound into rooting hormone if you’ve got it. If not, it will still work just fine. Make a 6-inch deep trench in the soil nearby to bend the wounded branch into. Secure the wounded part to the earth, being sure the wound is in good contact with the earth below; this is where the roots for your new lilac will form. You can hold the stem in place with a rock or a stake-whatever you have on hand will work. To keep the foliage tip of the branch growing upright, stake it straight. Fill the trench with soil, and water well. It will take anywhere from 12 to 24 months for the branch to develop roots. Once you see that the tip of the layered branch has a flush of new growth, it means you have roots, and the branch can be severed from the mother plant. Just cut the branch before the buried section, dig it up, and plant your new lilac into its place in the garden. This should be done in either spring or fall.

You can also propagate through taking softwood cuttings. To take softwood cuttings, trim off about 2 to 6 inches of healthy growth. The stem you choose should not just bend (it is too young) and it shouldn’t be super stiff (it’s too old.) It should snap crisply. You should take your cuttings in spring, after the plant has fully leafed out. Dip your cuttings into rooting hormone, and place it into sterile rooting medium, such as sand, perlite, or vermiculite. Water well, and place your cuttings into a clear plastic bag to keep everything moist. Keep the cuttings in a warm place out of direct sunlight. Once your roots are an inch long, you can remove the plastic bag, and keep everything moist. After a week out of the bag, you can plant your lilacs in potting soil. They can be put outside once the weather is mild, and then be kept in a cold frame or greenhouse until the following spring, when you can plant your tiny lilac in the garden.

Personally, I prefer layering, since it doesn’t require quite so much time and attention on the part of the gardener. The advantage of propagating from cuttings, though, is that you can get more plants at a time. But, since I don’t plan on a lilac forest, layering will work just fine.

There is nothing in this world like the perfume of a lilac on a warm spring day. I hope you’ll consider the lilac if you’re looking for a flowering shrub for your yard.