The lilac (genus Syringa) is often featured in art, and its stunning lavender blossoms are popular in wedding bouquets. The flowers are outstandingly fragrant, and attract a multitude of beneficial pollinators.
You may be surprised to learn that the lilac is a member of the olive family, Oleaceae. It has been cultivated ornamentally in Europe since the 1500s, and was brought to the Americas in the 1700s. While it produces no edible fruit, this shrub is certain to bring delight to your drought garden.
Quick Facts about Lilac
Height: Up to 22 feet
Lifespan: Long-lived perennial
Flowers: Panicles or clusters of small tubular flowers in shades of blue, pink, purple, and white.
Seeds: Winged seeds contained in a leathery capsule
Leaves: Simple, dark green. Deciduous. Chordate, arranged in pairs or in whorls of three.
Regions: Zones 2 to 9, encompassing the entire United States
Species: S. josiflexa, S. meyeri, S. vulgaris, S. persica, S. velutina, S. reflexa, S. microphylla, S. chinensis
Lilacs sport dark green leaves and may be grown as shrubs or trained to become small trees. They vary greatly in size; some are compact and reach only five feet in height, while others may grow to 20 feet or more.
Flowers appear in cone or pyramid shaped clusters. The tiny flowers are tubular in shape and may be blue, pink, or white, while purple is the most popular color. Most varieties are strongly scented. Flowers typically appear in early summer.
Lilacs are native to Asia and eastern Europe. They are capable of withstanding cold northern winters. The common lilac hails from Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, and it is naturalized across Europe and parts of North America.
Most varieties of common lilac can be grown throughout the United States, in USDA Zones 2 through 9. A few, however, are more sensitive, and are recommended for Zones 3 through 7. This would omit the warmest regions of California and the southeast.
There are about 25 species of lilac. Some of the most popular cultivars include:
“Bellicent,” an upright shrub with pink flowers. Bellicent grows to a height of 15 feet.
“Palibin,” a slow growing rounded shrub that remains only five feet in height and diameter. Its blooms are lavender or pink in color.
The common lilac is a spreading shrub or small tree that may have single or double purple flowers. This is the “classic” lilac, and it may grow to 22 feet in height and diameter.
Lilacs prefer full sun and soil that is alkaline or of a neutral pH. Faded flowers can be deadheaded before going to seed to promote continued flowering. Stems that have produced flowers twice or more can also be pruned to promote new growth.
Care of the common lilac determines is overall appearance. Removal of suckers – shoots emerging around the parent plant from the roots – and low growing branches will cause the plant to become tree-like. It can also be allowed to spread and pruned to form a decorative hedge.
Lilacs can be utilized as a shade plant. When planted an appropriate distance from an air conditioning unit or the westerly side of a building, this tall shrub may help reduce energy costs. Shaded areas may remain an average of 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than surrounding areas, thus reducing strain on cooling equipment.
Lilac may also be used as a windbreak. To form a windbreak, plant two to five rows of the shrub. The plants should be six to eight feet apart, with rows eight feet apart. Allow the plants to grow to their full height and spread.
The lilac’s sweet smell is also inviting to butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. The lilac is not an aggressive or invasive species, and thus poses no threat to native vegetation.