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.

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.