University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Graduations, outdoor weddings, garden parties, and everyday occasions in May and June are perfect times to use bunches of beautifully scented lilacs. If you have lilacs growing in your garden, not only will you have a good supply, but you'll have a handsome landscape shrub as well.
Lilacs are frequently used as border plants behind smaller plants, as corner plants in public and patio areas, as windscreens, and as flowering visual screens. While most gardeners plant them for their spring flowers, the summer foliage on lilacs is handsome and can add interest to your garden.
Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is the best known and probably the most widely planted lilac. Originally introduced from Europe by early settlers, this variety became easily established because of its hardiness. It is not uncommon to find it in an open field near the foundation of a house that has long since disappeared.
Old plants can grow as high as 15 feet with a spread of about 12 feet. This is usually too large for most present day gardens unless the lilacs are grown as small trees near a single story house.
Spring flowers can be either white or pinkish-purple although some hybrids have deeper colors such as blue, magenta, or violet. In summer lilacs have dull, bluish-green, heart-shaped leaves about four to five inches in diameter. Fall color is a pale yellow.
The Persian lilac (Syringa persica) is a smaller species that grows about eight feet high with an equal spread. The flowers are a pale, light purple color and are very fragrant, covering the outer surface of the plant in three-inch tall clusters. The leaves are two inches long and one-half inch wide and are light bluish-green like the common lilac.
The Chinese lilac (Syringa x chinensis) is somewhat of an oddity in the plant world. It is thought to be the first hybrid lilac, originating as a chance seedling in Rouen, France, in 1777, so it really is not a Chinese plant at all.
It has a broad spreading form about ten feet tall and equally as wide when it matures. Its fragrant flowers are purple and borne in large, loose, six-inch tall clusters. It requires some light pruning every few years to insure the development of new wood.
When selecting a lilac cultivar for your home landscape, keep your location in mind, and make sure there is adequate room for the shrub to grow over the years. Color may also be a consideration although almost every variety provides that delightful, lilac scent, so no matter what you choose, you can't go wrong.
Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles