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Lilac Growing Tips and Lore

Lilac Growing Tips and Lore

If there is one thing many gardeners and flower pickers alike look forward to, it’s the lilacs blooming in the spring. Between the strong fragrance and the pretty plumes of white, pink, mauve, and purple blossoms, this shrub is irresistible. Gardeners throughout history felt the same way. Common lilacs appeared in Britain as early as the 15th Century, and they came to the Americas along with some of the first settlers.

Where Did We Get Lilacs?

Before gardeners brought them to Britain and the Americas, common lilacs were found in Eastern Europe, while other types originated in Iran. The history of this shrub dates back so far that the ancient Greeks had a tale about it. In their legend, the god Pan fell hopelessly in love with a nymph named Syringa, but Syringa was terrified of the god and his newfound affection. Pan chased Syringa through a forest, where she turned herself into a lilac bush to hide from him.

That isn’t the only lore surrounding this shrub. Throughout Europe, especially within the British Isles, the lilac was considered an unlucky flower. It was perfectly fine to grow them outdoors, but bringing the flowers inside was asking for disaster. Purple lilacs were supposed to be far unluckier than the white ones, to the point that some said bringing a bouquet of purple lilacs inside would “bring death to a healthy home.” So bad was the reputation of lilacs that old British lore claimed that any girl wearing a sprig of lilacs on her dress was destined to be single forever. At one time, you could even give a bouquet of lilacs to your partner as a sign that you wanted to break up with him or her.

The Victorian era brought an end to the negative stigma surrounding lilacs, finally putting them in their rightful place as a favorite flower. Victorians developed what is known as the “Language of Flowers,” a system that gave flowers meanings that could be used symbolically or as a form of communication. Consequently, purple lilacs became known as the flowers of the first feelings of love, while white lilacs represented the innocence of youth.

Lilac’s Long History

Even in the United States, lilacs have a long history. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew these shrubs, and there are lilacs growing at New Hampshire’s Governor Wentworth Estate that are believed to have been planted in 1750. Early Americans often used lilacs as a substitute for aloe, a treatment for malaria and as a de-wormer.

Planting and Growing Lilacs

They are exceptionally sturdy, long lived and carefree. Because they spread by root suckers, you can nearly always dig up new starts from old lilac bushes.

Here is what you’ll need to know:

  • Choose a spot with full sun and good drainage. They don’t like wet feet.
  • Make sure your planting area has lots of room because these shrubs will grow over 15 feet tall, with a footprint just as large in circumference.
  • Lilacs need cold winters, which means that they normally only grow in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 9. In zones 8 and 9, you’ll have the best luck with specialty varieties that can tolerate warm winters. In warm climates, look for varieties including “Lavender Lady,” “Blue Skies,” “Angel White,” or “Miss Kim.”
  • When it comes to maintaining lilacs, there are a few things to know. Some people never prune their lilacs and that is fine, but the individual trunks can become very large — easily the size of a small to medium tree. The only issue that arises from not pruning your bushes, aside from the large size, is that if two large branches grow too close together, they may strangle each other, causing a bit of die back. The bush will recover from this, but in the meantime, you’ll want to remove the dead trunks. If you want to keep the branches smaller, then you’ll need to periodically trim out the old growth. The problem is that lilacs only bloom on branches that are a year old or older, so if you want to prune and still have blooms, follow the 1/3 rule. That is, only cut out approximately 1/3 of the older branches each year so that the lilac stays healthy and keeps blooming.

Lilacs have been a popular ornamental shrub for centuries, and with good reason. Few other large shrubs will bloom as much, smell as nice or be as easy to care for.

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  • Sandra Roy says:

    I had a purple flower bush & planted a white one near it. Eventually the one with purple flowers has turned to white flowers

  • Charlie says:

    Planted a lilac bush 3 years ago , about 4 feet tall , has plenty of leaves this spring already , have not seen any flowers on it yet ?is that normal

  • Ken Hughes says:

    Hi, would appreciate any advice that you can give me. We have a 25 foot lilac tree at the end of our garden it was there when we bought our house 30 years ago and we have had beautiful blooms and leaf coverage every single year, without any interventions from me. Just over a week ago I decided to c!ear all the other, very large, bushes and shrubs from the end of the garden and made a 4 ft square wooden planter to go around the base of the lilac tree. The intention was to extend the grassed area of the garden. It has taken me a full week to get all of the roots out from the bushes adjacent to the lilac tree but all of the leaves and blossom, it was in full bloom, have completely shriveled up and turned brown over the space of three days or so. My question is, have I killed the lilac tree completely, and need to chop it down, or is there a chance that it will recover. I feel quite sad at what I have done and any advise would be much appreciated, thank you and kind regards, Ken

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Ken, We can imagine that you must feel devastated. But before you do anything drastic, a few things could be at play here. You may have inadvertently damaged some lilac roots, and your lilac bush may be interpreting the clearing away of roots as “danger” – so it may be recovering. This sometimes happens with pruning, and it takes 2 years or more to see blooms again. Most gardeners prune within about three weeks of blooms. This is because lilac, like many other spring-flowering shrubs, forms its flower buds for next year a few weeks after blooming. So the jostling below may have sped the process. Also, be sure it has plenty of water. You mentioned “shriveling,” which could very well indicate it needs water, but be careful not to overwater. Next, have the soil tested to see if its too acidic, or lacking calcium. It’s a long shot, but the other shrubs nearby may have been equalizing the soil. You can get test kits at your local garden center. Lilac bushes do not do well in acidic soil, so if your soil test returns an acidic score, you must adjust its pH level with limestone. We also recommend calling in a professional at your local garden center who may have more insight. Good luck!

  • Katie Morel says:

    So I bought an old house a year ago and in my backyard I have this lilac bush/tree that is currently only producing little flowers at the top. It is also producing new growth at the bottom….everywhere! I would love for the lilac to spread and create like a natural bush line but I’m not sure if that’s good for the plant or not….I don’t believe it’s been grafted..I’m just not sure.if in should cut all of these little new shoots and replant or just let them do their thing?

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Katie, We recommend letting them do their thing, at least for a couple of seasons. That way you can see if it was a seasonal anomaly. It could also not be getting enough sunshine in the areas where there are no flowers. You might need to thin the area around the bush to make sure sunlight is getting through other foliage. But be careful about pruning. Lilacs do not need to be pruned, so if you prune it in order to rejuvenate the bush, it may take several years to recover and may not bloom during that time. And that may be what happened to those middle sections.

  • NaturallyNikki says:

    Lilacs are one the most easiest bushes to grow. It sounds like some of you might be over thinking it here. Blooms have to do with the cold and heat not how deep it is planted. My lilac is 25 yrs old.

    If I whacked at it really good I won’t get many blooms for 2-yrs. I give it no fertilizer and water ONLY when we have hit 90 degrees or higher (I water it either in the morning or evening/dusk).

    Depending on where you have PLACED your bush, however, will determine how it grows and blooms. Wind, heat, Wind, wild animals, wind, heat LOL A HOT wind can damage any tree or bush, heck garden if it doesn’t have the proper protection and lilacs are no different.

    Just my two-cents 🙂

  • NaturallyNikki says:

    To: Kathryn Gropp { 05.20.16 at 9:47 am }

    When I first moved into this home 6-yrs ago the Lilac bush next to the front door was sooo out of control (growing up onto the deck, tearing the shingles on top of my home, scratching the house up etc.) that I cut the bush down to 4 feet from 20′ and thinned out the base cleaning up the ground as I went along around it. Every 2-yrs I cut it back a couple of feet, but this year I sheared one side so I could use the ground to grow food (needed the sun to get to it) and it is doing just fine. She stands 15-20 feet tall and blooms like you wouldn’t believe 🙂

    Lilacs are pretty indestructible (hard to kill once established). You can take your lilac and trim/cut it into ANY shape you wish. Just take your time doing it and watch what you are cutting. I usually start with the suckers and work my way out.

    As for the Sucker, sure you can use them as ‘starters’. Two ways: 1. In late fall before dormancy cut it as close to the base as you can and stick into a jar of water for a week or two then put it in its ‘hole-home’ and in spring you should see a green leaf or two. Don’t forget to water it.

    2. In Early Spring find the ‘off shoot’ you wish to keep, cut it as close to the base as you can and roll the bottom 2-3 inches in root powder, stick it in it’s ‘forever home’ hole and cross your fingers you’ll get green leafs by June or Sept. Might not until the following year even.

    Transplanting lilacs is actually easy. They prefer to be transplanted when it is cooler or they are dormant. If they have started budding/flowering wait until the bush is finished completely, then cut at it.

    I do the first one, it works best for me (zone 7 No. NV). Hopes this helps and happy Spring!

  • Cindy says:

    I live in Northern Arizona at about 7,000′ elevation. I have a huge lilac bush in the middle of my back yard and it is actually blooming this year. The third time in 15 years. I’m excited! Seems like we always get a late frost which kills the little buds. This year I have a different problem. The Elk have eaten off one whole side of my bush & all the new buds they could reach. They have never bothered it before, why this year? I’m thinking about putting in for an Elk tag!

  • Kathryn Gropp says:

    My lilac bush is more like a tree now. It is as tall as the side of my house. Only blooms where I can barely reach it. I’ve trimmed it to mow under. I want it to bush out and be smaller, how much can I can it down without loosing it? And can I dig up little starts from it and transplant them?

  • Michele says:

    How can I grow a lilac bush from cuttings?

  • Michele says:

    How can I grow a lilac from cuttings?

  • BJAM says:

    As a child, my grandmother always spread a little ash for the woodburner around the lilac bushes behind our farmhouse. They were beautiful, at night we would lie in bed during the summer and smell the fragrance. Lilacs remind of my childhood home in Nebraska.

  • Nancy Howson says:

    When is the best time to transplant lilacs? I have two small ones that need to be moved. We live in Western Washington, and they grow beautifully. My entire yard smelled of lilac! Thank you!

  • Suze says:

    For those looking for plants best suites to your area, consult local AG office and go
    To a high quality landscaping center. Ask them for recommendations. Do not go online, to discount markets or hardware store. What they get will simply be stock, not something necessarily good in your area. it’s not worth the $$ you think you are saving when the shrub or tree dies…which happened until I got smart…and darned tired of digging out dead junk, not to mention getting weedy stuff instead of what was marked on the packaging.

    As for never blooming if I’m shade, mine bloom profusely and are in shade. I’d check soil and look into supplements for soil if you see no blooms. Again, consult local AG office or high quality landscaping company.

  • vicki says:

    Didn’t have many blooms this year. We have had a cold spring. I love the smell of lilacs. Of course my allergies don’t care for them.

  • brenda newton says:

    use epsom salt

  • Jay says:

    Sandi,
    You can always add nitrogen your soil.

  • Samantha says:

    The word “syringe” is thought (in medical and nursing history) to have originated through the ancient practice (still used a bit in modern veterinary medicine) of injecting fluids under the skin to rehydrate the patient. This occurred in the days before intravenous therapy was known and was, and still is, called hypodermaclysis. There were no needles such as we know today, so tips of lilac branches were cored and sharpened. Some are even naturally hollow, and the fluid was dripped through these hollowed, sharpened “needles’ placed into the skin. Hence syringe, from syringa. It’s worth a point of extra credit to any of my nursing students who remember it!

  • Elkay says:

    I’m from western New York and now live in central Florida and I sure do miss lilacs in the spring. Central Florida is probably zone 9. Our winters can have darn chilly spells, and while freezes and frosts are rare, they are not unheard of. Does anyone know where I can purchase the lilac specialty varieties that can tolerate warm climates (as mentioned in the article)?

  • Kathy Anderson says:

    Lilacs won’t bloom if they are under anything like a large tree or over hangings from a building.

  • Trena Arthur-Noble says:

    You need to prune them once they finish blooming and the blooms are dying off.

  • tiotony says:

    All in all they are a pain.

  • connie says:

    when is the best time to prune the lilacs?

    • Sandi Duncan says:

      Yes as Trena said the best time for pruning lilac bushes is right after their flowering has ceased. This allows new shoots plenty of time to develop the next season of blooms. If you are pruning lilac trees or shrubs entirely to within inches of the ground, it is best to do so in early spring.

  • Carl says:

    Edna,
    Years ago I heard that if you plant your Lilac too deep, it will not bloom. Look to see if the root joint is covered. You may want to pull some soil away from the base of the Lilac

  • edna says:

    my lilac is 6 years old and never blossomed, why?

    • Sandi Duncan says:

      I had one like that too. Frustrating. Some say not enough sun, others say too much nitrogen. I also find the spring weather affects how many blooms. This year was a good year but they never last long enough. Maybe take your soil to an expert and have it tested for nitrogen?

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