Shrubs

Lilacs: Grow the Fragrance of Nostalgia

I think we all have fragrances that, when they make their way to our noses, magically transport us to a favorite place or memory. For me, it is the scent of lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). When I breathe in their sweet perfume, I am a little girl in my mother’s garden, holding as many stems of purple flower clusters that my hands can manage.

Lilacs are easy to grow as long as they are given the conditions they prefer. First, full sun is a must.

Next, lilacs require well-drained soil. They may need supplemental watering in periods of drought. An inch of water, whether from rainfall or the hose, is best. A layer of mulch will help the soil retain moisture. Once established, lilacs are extremely long-lived.

Fertilize lilacs sparingly. One application of an organic, balanced, granular fertilizer sprinkled around the bases of plants in early spring is plenty. Stay away from high-nitrogen fertilizers – they will cause decreased flowering.

Deadhead spent blossoms by cutting stems that flowered back to the first set of leaves. This will prevent the plant from setting seeds and encourage it to put its energy into making next year’s flower buds instead. Deadheading is especially important on repeat-blooming types.

Plant a lilac near a window where its fragrance can waft indoors.

Traditional lilacs flower on old wood, so pruning must be done right after they finish blooming. Any pruning done later in summer will reduce the quantity of next spring’s flowers. Begin by pruning out any dead or broken branches and removing small suckers from the bases of plants.

If the goal of pruning is to reduce the height of a lilac that has grown too tall for its space or to rejuvenate an old lilac, the entire shrub can be cut back to 6 to 12 inches from the ground. It will take a few years for it to regrow and bloom again.

Or to renew it while continuing to enjoy blooms at the same time, cut a third of the oldest branches nearly to the ground. Next year, cut down another third and the following year, prune the final third.

The flower buds of this lilac are about to burst open, releasing their nostalgic scent.

Lilacs are sometimes affected by powdery mildew – a fungal disease that forms whitish-gray spots on the foliage. Although it rarely does damage to the lilac, it is unsightly. Reduce the chance of powdery mildew by choosing mildew-resistant varieties and thinning plants after flowering.

Some of the best traditional cultivars include Charles Joly (double, magenta flowers), Donald Wyman (purple flowers), Madame Lemoine (pure white flowers), Monge (dark reddish-purple flowers), President Lincoln (blue flowers) and Primrose (creamy yellow flowers). They grow 8 feet tall or taller, perfect for planting toward the back of a mixed shrub border or as a hedge.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’

My favorite cultivar of traditional lilacs is Sensation. Its uniquely-colored, deep purple flowers edged in white are sensational. It grows at least 10 feet tall and nearly as wide. Plant this beauty where its dramatic flowers can be appreciated.

Over the last several years, smaller lilacs have been introduced that are easier to fit into the landscape.

Syringa meyeri ‘Miss Kim’

Miss Kim forms a rounded shrub, around six feet tall and wide. Her clusters of flowers are smaller and bloom a little later than traditional lilacs. Her fall foliage shows off shades of burgundy.

Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’

Palibin is a bit smaller than Miss Kim in all its parts – smaller lavender pink flowers, smaller dark green, glossy leaves, and smaller stature. It grows up to 5 feet tall and slightly wider. Fall foliage color is reddish purple. Palibin’s smaller size makes it an ideal candidate for foundation planting and mixed borders.

The Bloomerang series of lilacs was introduced in 2009. They bloom on old and new wood so they flower heavily in May, take a rest in June, and begin re-blooming in July with smaller, but still fragrant, flowers. For the best encore performance, deadhead spent flowers right after bloom and feed with a fertilizer formulated for shrubs.

Bloomerang lilacs generally grow from 4 to 5 feet tall and wide, and are very mildew resistant.

Syringa ‘Bloomerang Pink Perfume’

Bloomerang Dark Purple is larger than Bloomerang Purple – the original introduction. The newest member of the family, Pink Perfume, boasts light pink flowers. Plant Bloomerang lilacs in perennial borders with other spring bloomers, in mixed shrub borders, or in shorter neighbor-friendly hedges.

Do you have a garden fragrance that reminds you of a special person, place or time? Share your story, and then get out outside and garden with me!

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