Having been a gardener and nurseryman on Nantucket for over 20 years, I’ve amassed a long list of favorite plants. From year to year, the list changes as some plants become over-used and improved selections and exciting introductions hit the market. Nonetheless, there are a few plants that will have a special place in my heart no matter what. Old-fashioned lilacs are one of those.
When I was a child, my grandparents, Jim and Isabelle, had some common lilacs in their yard in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Fully mature, their stems had widened into trunks and they were so tall that we called them “lilac trees”. Grandma would send us outside with kitchen scissors to cut the flowers and bring them indoors. There were always extra to share, and we often brought some home to my Mom for our house too. I also clearly remember Mom sending me down to our neighbor Theresa’s house to ask for a cutting of her lilac shrub. We planted it at the edge of the lawn. That lilac is now taller than I am and a lovely way to remember Theresa, who so kindly gave it to us, thirty years ago.
There are currently twelve species in the genus Syringa but only a few are cultivated in North America as garden plants. Syringa vulgaris, common lilac, is the plant that comes to mind when most of us think of traditional lilacs. There are many cultivars available, with flowers that range in color from crisp white, to deep purple-red. There also numerous hybrids on the market that make great garden plants. These lanky, suckering, shrubs grow 15-20 feet tall and can easily spread to occupy a space of 5 or more feet wide. In order to keep lilacs looking their best, they do require a good pruning regimen. Since the flowers appear on old wood at the tips of the branches, they can stretch out of reach as the plants get older.
Pruning is best done just after the flowers have faded in mid summer. Keep in mind these objectives, while pruning:
- Remove diseased or damaged wood
- Encourage strong growth at the base of the plant, in order to combat the leggy habit
- Keep the height of the plant in check, so that flowers can be enjoyed
- Remove spent flowers, if desired
Consider following these steps while pruning:
- Take a good look at the overall structure of the plant. Consider removing one or two of the oldest stems completely, at ground level
- Consider removing a few wayward branches
- Make several cuts at different levels to encourage new, bushy growth throughout the plant.
- Remove dead heads, making pruning cuts just above healthy buds.
- Assess the overall height of the plant, and make deeper, staggered cuts to reduce the height.
Check out our pinterest board for photos of old-fashioned lilacs we’ve carried in the past:
Here’s a quick reference guide to varieties we’ve had in the past:
Syringa vulgaris aka common lilac: Light purple flowers. 10-12′
Syringa vulgaris ‘Adelaide Dunbar’: Deep purple buds open to double paler purple flowers. French lilac.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Agincourt Beauty’: Very large, deep purple flowers. 10-12′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Charles Joly’: Deep purple, double flowers. 8-10′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Edward J Gardner’: Light pink, double flowers. 8-10′.
Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Equinox Valley’: Reddish-purple buds open to double light purple flowers. 8-15′.
Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Maidens Blush’: Light pink flowers. Canadian lilac. Early flowering. 10-12′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine’: White, double flowers. French lilac. 15′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Monge’: Reddish-purple flowers. French Lilac. 8-12′.
Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Mount Baker’: White flowers. Canadian lilac. Early flowering. 12-15′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Nadezhda’: Double, lilac-blue flowers. Mid-season. 8-12′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Krasavitsa Moscovy’ aka Beauty of Moscow: Very pale pink buds open to double white flowers. 12′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Lavender Lady’: Light purple flowers. 12′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Paul Thirion’: Reddish-purple buds open to double pale purple flowers. French lilac. 10-12′.
Syringa x hyacinthiflora ‘Pocahontas’: Deep purple buds open to paler purple. Canadian Lilac. Early. 10′
Syringa vulgaris ‘President Grevy’: Violet-blue, double flowers. French liac. 10-12′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘President Lincoln’: Purple-blue flowers. Mid-season. 8-10′.
Syringa vulgaris ‘Sensation’: Reddish Purple florets, tinged in white. French lilac. Mid-season. 10-12′.