Now Blooming: Lilacs

The lilacs in my garden are just starting to bloom, and their scent never fails to remind me that I really should plant more of them. These old-fashioned beauties are well-deserving of a place in your yard. Aside from the fragrant blooms in late spring, lilacs have very attractive, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. You can let your lilac grow tall and wild, or you can prune it to keep it more manageable. And if you’re looking for varieties that require little care, there are lilacs available for you, too.

Lilacs take me back to my grandmother’s back yard on Detroit’s East Side, where a row of them stood sentry on her alley fence line. They were huge, overgrown, and wild — and I loved them! You could crawl inside the hedge and sit in the shade. In late May, when the weather was warm and the lilacs were blooming, that was the best place in the entire world to spend a lazy afternoon.

Lilacs require very little care after they’re established. Regular pruning will keep them from taking over your garden, and deadheading the flowers after they have finished blooming will increase the number of blooms you get next year. Lilacs can develop powdery mildew if they’re planted in an area without much air circulation. To improve conditions if mildew becomes a problem, try pruning out some of the branches to increase air flow, and consider moving any plants that are encroaching on your lilac’s space. You can also spray once a week or so with a baking soda spray to prevent powdery mildew. This is not something I’ve had to do in my garden, but if you have issues with powdery mildew most years, it may be worth doing just to nip the problem in the bud.

The best way to ensure that your lilac will be happy (and make you happy in return!) is to select the right variety.

Favorite Lilacs for Michigan Gardens

  • Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) — These are the lilacs that grew along my grandmother’s fence, and are most likely the one most people think of when they think “lilac.” They can get quite large, but make a magnificent hedge, and their light purple (lilac…) flowers are very fragrant.
  • ‘President Lincoln’ — If you’re looking for a fragrant shrub that has bluish colored blossoms, ‘President Lincoln’ might be a good fit for you. This is another classic lilac variety that gets quite large — about eight feet wide by ten feet tall.
  • ‘Palibin’ — Also known as ‘Dwarf Korean Lilac,’ ‘Palibin’ is a great option for those of us who have small gardens, or who are unable to devote a large amount of space to a lilac. With very little pruning (I prune mine maybe once every three years or so, tops), ‘Palibin’ maintains its compact form, growing roughly three feet wide by about three feet tall. The best thing about this lilac: it is a proficient bloomer. ‘Palibin’ is loaded with fragrant, pinkish-purple blossoms every year. Its small leaves are much more round than traditional lilac leaves, and, as a bonus, turn a pretty coppery color in autumn.
  • ‘Mt. Baker’ — If you’re looking for a lilac that blooms white, look for ‘Mt. Baker,’ a large lilac (eight by ten feet, roughly) that blooms in mid to late May. Note, however, that the white lilacs tend to be less fragrant than the purple ones.

Lilacs are best planted in fall, but early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, will do as well. Be forewarned, though: once you’ve experienced the fragrance of a lilac in full bloom, it may be hard to limit yourself to just one!

For more about lilac care and propagation, check out my Lilac Plant Profile on In the Garden Online.