Year of the Lilac

Year of the Lilac

Lilacs are among the most carefree spring-flowering, multi-stemmed, deciduous shrubs (or small trees), well-loved for their toughness, reliability, and fragrance.

Overview and History

Clusters of small, four-lobed flowers are borne in conical to narrow pyramidal clusters (panicles) up to eight inches long that stand out from the green heart-shaped leaves.

Carl Linnaeus first described the lilac genus, Syringa, in 1753. The name is derived from the ancient Greek word syrinx, meaning pipe or tube. The stems of the common lilac have a spongy pith that can be removed, leaving hollow tubes that were used to make pan-pipes.

Syringa vulgaris, the common (vulgaris) lilac, originated in southeastern Europe; other species came from Western Asia. The French imported lilacs and developed many new varieties that made their way to North America.

Lilac blooms go far beyond every imaginable shade of lilac/purple from very pale to very dark. Look for lilacs in hues of red, pink, blue, yellow, cream and white—even picotee (white-edged, deep purple ‘Sensation’). The color may change from bud to bloom and as the flowers mature. Individual flowers can be single or double.

Lilacs originated in Eastern Europe and Asia and were brought to America in the 17th century |Year of the Lilac | National Garden Bureau

Lilac Species

There are about 30 different species of lilac. Among the best-known and prized lilacs are:

  • Syringa x chinensis Chinese Lilac – Grows 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 3. Rose-purple flowers. Susceptible to powdery mildew.
  • Syringa x hyacinthiflora – Early Flowering Lilac – Grows 10 to 12 feet high and wide. Hardy to Zone 3. Exquisitely fragrant flowers may be single or double, opening 7 to 10 days before those of the common lilac. Unlike other lilacs, the foliage has multi-season interest, turning shades of gold, red, or purple in fall. Resistant to powdery mildew. Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. ‘Pocahontas’ panicles are packed with fragrant, single, rich violet flowers.
  • Syringa josikaea – Hungarian Lilac – Grows 8 to 10 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 5. Late-blooming with deep lilac-purple, slightly fragrant flowers.
  • Syringa laciniata – Cutleaf or Feathered Persian Lilac. Grows 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. Heat tolerant—hardy from Zones 4 to 8. Can grow in partial shade. Very unique looking with airy, finely textured foliage—lacy, deeply cut, dark green leaves that turn yellow-green in fall. Loose panicles of fragrant, soft lavender flowers are borne on willowy, arched branchlets.
  • Syringa pubescens patula (Syringa patula) ‘Miss Kim’ – Manchurian or Korean Lilac. Slow-grower reaching 6 to 8 feet tall and wide. Heat tolerant—hardy from Zones 3 to 8. Late flowering, with purple buds that open to very fragrant, lavender-blue blossoms that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Three-season interest with burgundy-tinged leaves in fall.
  • Syringa meyeri – Meyer or Korean Lilac – Grows 5 to 8 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 3. Fragrant, pale lilac to violet-purple flowers bloom in small, dense clusters that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Syringa persica – Persian Lilac – Grows 4 to 8 feet tall and 5 to 10 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 4. Intoxicatingly fragrant, showy, pale violet flowers attract butterflies.
  • Syringa x prestoniae Preston (Canadian) Lilac – Grows 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. Late-blooming—two weeks or more after common lilacs. Exceptionally hardy—to Zone 2. ‘Miss Canada’ is upright, growing 6 to 12 feet tall and wide; reddish buds open to rosy pink flowers that attract butterflies. ‘Redwine’ grows 8 to 12 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide; magenta flowers with a spicy fragrance that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Syringa reticulata – Japanese Tree Lilac – Grows to 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 3. Creamy white, upright flowers. Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. ‘Snowdance’ grows 15 to 20 feet tall and 15 to 18 feet wide, producing a profusion of large clusters of fragrant, tiny, creamy-white blooms in early summer, followed by loose clusters of seed capsules that last into winter. Reddish-brown peeling bark completes the four-season interest.
  • Syringa vulgaris – Common Lilac – Grows 12 to 16 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 3. Lilac-purple flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Shrubs are deer and rabbit-resistant. There are more than 600 cultivars of this species. Standouts include:
    • ‘Ludwig Spaeth’ – 6 to 10 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide, this sweetly perfumed, late bloomer bears dark purple flowers and is used in firescaping (landscape design that reduces house and property vulnerability to wildfire).
    • ‘Président Grévy’– 8 to 14 feet tall and 3 to 7 feet wide with fragrant, showy, light blue flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies.
    • ‘President Lincoln’ – 8 to 10 feet tall and wide, this heirloom cultivar was introduced in 1916 and is considered one of the bluest lilacs with its fragrant panicles of lavender-blue flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
    • ‘Sensation’- 8 to 15 feet tall and 6 to 12 feet wide with outstanding fragrant, single, white-edged purple (picotee) flowers.

Lilacs can grow for 100+ years, often outliving the homes they were planted around | Year of the Lilac | National Garden BureauNew and Unique Lilac Varieties

Has It All: 

  • Syringa x ‘Josee’ – Not only is it small and a rebloomer, but it also has one of the widest hardiness ranges of any lilac—from Zones 3 to 9! Slowly growing into a 4- to 5-foot mound, highly fragrant, lavender-pink, large flower clusters bloom heavily in spring and continue to blossom sporadically through summer, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds.

Heat Tolerant: 

People living in Hardiness Zone eight, especially those who have lived in cooler areas and have treasured having lilacs in their gardens, can now enjoy all the virtues of lilacs thanks to breeders who have worked on heat and humidity tolerance to Zone 8.

  • Blue Skies® quickly grows to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, with both cold- and heat-tolerance (Zones 3 to 8), this outstanding shrub with spectacular clusters of lavender-blue flowers can be used in firescaping and firewise gardens.
  • ‘Old Glory’ grows 8 to 11 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide with an abundance of fragrant, purple-blue flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds in Zones 5 to 8.
  • Syringa x sinensis ‘Lilac Sunday’ arches to 10 feet tall and wide, blooming profusely from lateral buds all along the stem as well as the typical branch tips with sweetly scented, lavender flowers. Hardy in Zones 3 to 8, it is used in firescaping.
  • Syringa x oblata ‘Betsy Ross’ grows 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. Good hardiness ranges from Zones 2 to 8. Showy panicles up to 14 inches long packed with fragrant, pure white flowers that glow as the light fades at twilight. Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Small Lilacs

Many gardeners, especially those in urban spaces, just don’t have the room for the traditional larger lilacs yet want all their beauty and fragrance. Breeders have been hard at work creating compact varieties. There’s no excuse now for not having the joy, fragrance, and beauty that lilacs bring in spring, these beauties will even grow will grow happily in a container on your balcony.

  • Baby Kim® is the smallest lilac, growing only 2 to 3 feet high and 3 feet wide, giving it a nicely rounded shape. Its shiny green leaves beautifully set off the non-fading, purple flowers that attract butterflies. Extended hardiness from Zones 3 to 8.
  • Little Lady™ (Syringa x) is a new compact introduction that matures to 4-5’ tall and wide with dark pink buds that open to lilac-pink flowers. Bred in Canada, Little Lady™ is hardy zone 2 to 7.
  • “New Age Lavender’ and ‘New Age White’ (Syringa vulgaris) are super-compact, growing from 4 to 5 feet tall and wide, and were bred for mildew resistance. Their names perfectly describe the colors of their fragrant flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Hardy to Zone 4.
  • Pearl Potion™ (Syringa meyeri) has an upright shape, growing 4 to 5 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide. Fragrant, pure white flowers bloom in late spring perfuming the air like their big cousins. Hardy to Zone 3.
  • Pinktini™ Lilac (Syringa x prestoniae) is new in garden centers in Spring 2022. Upright, compact, and cold hardy to Zone 2, this new pink-blooming variety is great for small spaces and early-season blooms in cold climates. Pinktini™ is more compact and tidier than the classic ‘Miss Canada’ Lilac.
  • SCENTARA® lilacs (Syringa x hyacinthiflora) – This series is ideal for warm climates to Zone 8 and is hardy to the cold of Zone 2. With a dwarf form and some of the best fragrance from their parentage combined with good resistance to powdery mildew, they fit into any garden. Scentara Pura® grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, bearing deeply scented, pure purple flowers. Scentara® Double Blue grows 6 to 8 feet tall and wide and is a showstopper with its large clusters of highly perfumed, lavender-blue, double flowers.
  • Sugar Plum Fairy® (Syringa vulgaris) grows to 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Hardy from Zones 3 to 8, it’s a late bloomer bearing spicy scented clusters of rosy pink flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Tinkerbelle® grows to 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 3, it’s a superb lilac with wine-red buds that open to deep pink flowers with a spicy fragrance that attracts hummingbirds.

Reblooming Lilacs

  • Syringa meyeri ‘Palabin’ Dwarf Korean Lilac is a spreading shrub that grows 4 to 6 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide, bearing reddish-purple buds that open to pale purple flowers with a jasmine-like scent. It flowers in spring and then from summer to frost., attracting butterflies and hummingbirds. Cut back early flowers as soon as they fade. Hardy to Zone 3.
  • Bloomerang® Lilacs are outstanding reblooming lilacs with a profusion of stunning, sweetly scented clusters of star-like flowers in spring that seem to cover the plant and then rebloom less profusely from midsummer until the first frost. The fragrant flowers attract butterflies and other pollinators and are both disease and deer-resistant. Hardy to Zone 3. Bloomerang® Dark Purple grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide with dark purple flowers. Bloomerang® Dwarf Pink grows 2 to 3 feet tall and wide with pure pink flowers. Bloomerang® Dwarf Purple grows like Bloomerang® Dwarf Pink, but with purple flowers. Bloomerang® Pink Perfume grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide with highly fragrant, pink flowers. Bloomerang® Purple grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide and bears purple flowers.
Purple colored varieties traditionally have the strongest scent | Year of the Lilac | National Garden Bureau

Lilacs in the Garden

Lilacs have myriad uses in the garden. In addition, new sizes, a wider range of growing zones, and reblooming characteristics make them attractive and accessible to gardeners who may not have thought about growing them in the past.

These plants are at home in so many types of themed gardens, including pollinator, butterfly, cutting, fragrance, cottage, deer-resistant, and single-color (white, purple) gardens. In Zone 8 other fire-prone areas, some are used for firescaping and firewise gardens. Lilacs are great in mass plantings in a flowering hedge, border, windbreak, foundation planting, privacy, or screening hedge. Lilacs of any size can be impressive specimen plants. These versatile shrubs are equally comfortable at the edge of a woodland garden or in an urban setting. In containers, small varieties are moveable accent plants. Lilac colors blend so well together, they are beautiful in a grouping or hedge of many different cultivars.

10 Lilac Planting Tips

  1. Most lilacs do well in Hardiness Zones 3 to 7—climates that provide a chill period in winter. 
  2. Lilacs grow best in full sun, so avoid planting them where they will be shaded for more than a few hours.
  3. Lilacs need good drainage and fertile soil. Soil should retain sufficient moisture to nourish the root system yet drain freely when rainfall is abundant.
  4. Test drainage before planting: Dig a hole 8 inches across and 12 inches deep. Fill it with water. If any water remains in the hole after an hour, choose another planting area.
  5. Lilacs love fertile, slightly alkaline soil. If your soil is very acidic, add garden lime in the fall.
  6. Choose a planting space that will allow for future growth. Read the plant label for the height and spread of the mature plant.
  7. Dig the planting hole as deep as the root ball and twice as wide.
  8. Set the plant in the hole; it should be at the same soil level as it was in its container.
  9. Fill in around the sides with soil. Press it in firmly.
  10. Water well.

8 Lilac Growing Tips

  1. Water your lilacs regularly for the first couple of years—at least 1 inch of water a week.
  2. Apply granular organic fertilizer early each spring at the base of the plant. Water it in well. Buds are set the previous year, so the fertilizer feeds this year’s leaves and next year’s blooms.
  3. Annual pruning is not necessary, but cutting off spent flower heads within a month after bloom helps the plant set more flowers for next year.
  4. Cut back off root suckers as they appear to keep the common lilac from spreading into a colony.
  5. Rejuvenate an overgrown plant or one that blooms sparsely by cutting one-third of the oldest branches back to 12 to 15 inches from the ground. Do over a three-year period to refresh the plant without sacrificing blooms.
  6. Powdery mildew can be unsightly but generally does not harm the plant. You can make a spray of 2 tablespoons of baking soda in a gallon of water with a couple of drops of Ivory liquid. Spray it on the leaves, but not if the temperature is over 80°. The alkalinity of the solution helps to kill the fungus.
  7. Rake fallen leaves from around the plant in autumn. If you had powdery mildew or any disease, bag them and toss them in the garbage, otherwise add them to your compost pile.
  8. Anytime: Prune out any dead or broken branches from storm or winter damage.

This fact sheet is provided as an educational service of the National Garden Bureau. 


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  • Kristin Ego