Lilacs, Syringa, are classic garden shrubs and small trees that bear panicles of fragrant, tubular, single or double flowers in shades of purple, pink and white from late spring to early summer. The flowers are highly attractive to pollinators, including bees, butterflies and moths. They are excellent for cutting and are edible, too.
The most common lilac is Syringa vulgaris, or tree lilac. It is part of the Oleaceae or olive family and is native to east Asia and south east Europe. It was much loved by the Edwardians and was widely grown in suburban gardens before going out of fashion. However there is now renewed interest in lilac as it is hard to beat for flowers, wildlife value and scent.
There are are many cultivars to choose from – some are compact and more suitable for smaller gardens or pots, while larger types can be grown as a standalone specimen in a lawn or at the back of a mixed border.
You can expect lilacs to put on around 30-60cm of growth a year. To extend the season of interest, you could try growing a late-flowering clematis through the larger cultivars.
How to grow lilac
Lilacs are easy to grow. Grow in moist but well-drained, neutral to alkaline soil in full sun. Prune after flowering to prevent them getting leggy. Mulch annually in spring.
Lilac: jump links
- Planting lilac
- Caring for lilac
- Propagating lilac
- Growing lilac: problem-solving
- Buying lilac
- Best lilac to grow
Where to grow lilac
Lilacs thrive in a sunny location, in well-drained, fertile, humus-rich soil that is alkaline to neutral. Lilacs are good plants for chalky or alkaline soils.
How to plant lilac
Dig a generous hole and plant your lilac to the level of the soil line. Back-fill and firm down the soil gently around the plant. Water in well. Mulch after planting to help retain moisture in the soil. If you’re growing lilac in a pot, choose one that is at least 60cm in diameter. Plant into John Innes No.3 compost with some sand or grit added for drainage.
How to care for lilac
Mulch lilac annually in spring. As the flowers fade towards midsummer, you can deadhead spent blooms on smaller shrubs. Prune shrubs for the desired height and shape after flowering, also removing any dead, diseased or dying wood.
If you need to renovate an overgrown or leggy old tree, prune when the plant is dormant, in winter. Lilacs respond well to hard pruning and you can cut the whole plant back to around 1m above ground. Because they flower on the previous year’s wood, you will lose the flowers for a at least one year. Alternatively you could remove some of the stems over a period of two or three years, cutting them back to the ground – this will ensure that you still enjoy some spring flowers.
How to take lilac cuttings
Propagate lilacs by softwood cuttings. Follow our step-by-step guide to taking softwood cuttings.
You can propagate lilac from the suckers that often sprout from the base of the plant. Simply dig them up with some roots attached and replant.
Lilacs are generally problem free but may be attacked by lilac leaf mining moths or thrips. These do not usually harm the vigour of the plant.
Poor flowering in spring could be due to poorly drained soil or not enough sunshine – lilacs need a sunny spot. Late frosts can also spoil the flowers.
Suckers may spring from the base of the plant. If you don’t want to propagate from them, tear or wrench (rather than cut) the shoots away. This can be done from midsummer onwards and will help to prevent them regrowing.
Lilac blight causes die back, distorted and blemished leaves and ultimately, leaf drop. Blossoms can also be affected, turning brown and limp. Pruning out the affected branches, well beyond signs of infection, in dry sunny weather may help. This also will improve air circulation, helping to control the spread.
Lilacs can also be affected by honey fungus.
Lilac varieties to grow
Syringa ‘Red Pixie’
Syringa ‘Red Pixie’ is a compact lilac, baring masses of fragrant pink flowers, which open from red buds. It often then flowers again in late summer or early autumn. Perfect for a small garden, it will also grow in a large pot. Height x Spread: 1.8m x 1.8m
Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’
Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ is a Korean lilac that bears masses of panicles of fragrant, purple-pink flowers from late spring to early summer, contrasting with oval, dark green leaves. It’s ideal for growing in a sunny ornamental border. Compact and slow growing, it’s suitable for smaller gardens or growing in pots. H x S: 1.5m x 1.5m
Syringa vulgaris ‘Primrose’
Syringa vulgaris ‘Primrose’ has white flowers that mature to cream-yellow and have an exceptional lilac scent. H x S: 3m x 3m
Syringa vulgaris Sensation’
Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’ is a striking lilac with unusual, purple-red flowers that are edged with white. H x S: 4m x 4m
Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’
A spreading shrub with double, lavender blue flowers, set against heart shaped leaves. H x S: 4m x 4m
- Buy Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ from Crocus
- Buy Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ from Thompson & Morgan
Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’
A beautiful large double white-flowered variety bred by the French breeder Victor Lemoine in 1890, and still going strong today. H x S: 7m x 7m
- Buy Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’ from Primrose
- Buy Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’ from Crocus
Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’
Stunning, double purple-red flowers. H x S: 4m x 4m