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Gardening 101: Lilacs

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Gardening 101: Lilacs

April 29, 2020

Lilac, Syringa: “The Weeping Whitman”

Syringa is a flowering and divinely scented woody genus of hundreds of species that thrives in temperate growing zones (such as your grandmother’s garden, where you probably remember a lilac bush next to the peonies). A well-established lilac emits a perfume powerful enough to inspire Walt Whitman to write what was arguably his most emotionally raw poem, an elegy to a recently assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” recognized the flowers’ gentle beauty and persistence as a fitting symbol for the departed president, in part because they tend to bloom in April, the month of his assassination. Lilacs evoke both nostalgia and hope (it’s impossible to pass by a lilac in bloom without stopping to breathe in its scent).

Photograph by Dagny Mol via Flickr.
Above: Photograph by Dagny Mol via Flickr.

The biggest problem with common lilac is its Latin name, Syringa vulgaris. Is there anything, and I mean anything, vulgar about a lilac? The luxuriously droopy purple flower conjures up images of sweet, country cottages and delightfully scented summer mornings in the neighborhood.

Photograph by Justine Hand.  Syringa chinensis ‘Lilac Sunday’ was cultivated from a seed supplied by the Beijing Botanical Garden and named after theArnold Arboretum&#8\2\17;s annual Lilac Sunday event, held each May since \1908. For more, see Lilac Love: A Guide to Spring&#8\2\17;s Best-Loved Flower.
Above: Photograph by Justine Hand.  Syringa chinensis ‘Lilac Sunday’ was cultivated from a seed supplied by the Beijing Botanical Garden and named after theArnold Arboretum’s annual Lilac Sunday event, held each May since 1908. For more, see Lilac Love: A Guide to Spring’s Best-Loved Flower.
Lilacs keep happy company with spirea and peonies. Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: Lilacs keep happy company with spirea and peonies. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Ever since it was brought to Europe and the Americas, transplanted from the fragrant garden of an Ottoman sultan, the lilac has been synonymous with capital-R Romance and classic charm. No wonder it has attracted so many poets and writers—almost as many as the honeybees it lures into its little purple buds each spring. T. S. Elliot nods to Whitman in “The Wasteland,” calling April “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

Photograph by Justine Hand.
Above: Photograph by Justine Hand.

Lilac flowers can be purple, blue, white, or magenta depending on the species.

Cheat Sheet

  • Like many shrubs, these need to be pruned regularly. Don’t be afraid to snip the taller canes back down to size.
  • Lilacs have a delicious signature fragrance; if you plant them en masse, you can smell them even from far away.
  • Space plants 15 feet apart to give their roots room to luxuriate.

Keep It Alive

  • These shrubs bask in full sun.
  • Don’t water lilacs unless you get less than 1 inch of rain per week.
  • Plant in spring or fall.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Jean Bart’ has a striking double flower in dark magenta. Photograph by Justine Hand.ccc
Above: Syringa vulgaris ‘Jean Bart’ has a striking double flower in dark magenta. Photograph by Justine Hand.ccc

Lilacs are not difficult to grow at home, but they certainly need their space. A lilac bush can grow from 5 to 15 feet tall, depending on the species, and must have that amount of ground space in order to extend its roots comfortably. They only need to be watered in case of unusually low rainfall, and over fertilizing them can be dangerous. Be sure to prune, and you’ll have weepy, romantic flowers year after year.

N.B.: For more (we can’t get enough), see our Garden Design 101 guides:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for lilac with our Lilac: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.

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