Extension Educator, Horticulture
For springtime eye candy there are tulips and daffodils, but for springtime nose candy there are lilacs. For many of us lilacs in bloom are nostalgic reminders of our youth. Wrapped up in that fabulous fragrance is the comforting hug from grandma, the bone-warming feel of early summer sun and the edge-of-our-seats anticipation that school will soon be out.
People have been drawn to lilacs for over four hundred years. More than 1800 cultivars exist with a dizzying array of flower colors, flower sizes, blooming times, intensity of fragrance and plant sizes. Flower colors range from white to shades of pink, lilac, magenta and purple with some leaning toward blue and a few creamy yellows. Lilac flowers last about 7-10 days but by selecting early to late season cultivars it is possible to have lilac blooms for 5-6 weeks.
Lilacs also vary in their disease resistance. For example Chinese lilacs and Persian lilacs have fragrant flowers, but are very susceptible to disease.
In our area the most common diseases are powdery mildew and bacterial blight. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that creates a white powder on the leaves. The leaves may fall off or just look unattractive. Generally powdery mildew doesn't kill the plant.
Bacterial blight is caused by a bacteria and can be much more devastating then powdery mildew. Bacterial blight starts as brown spots with yellow halos on leaves during cool wet springs. It can cause distorted leaves and twig dieback. White lilacs seem to be the most susceptible to bacterial blight.
Common lilac also called French lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is the lilac of our youth. Most of the Common lilac cultivars grow to 8-15 feet tall and sucker readily so give them plenty of room. The flowers are very fragrant but unfortunately some cultivars can be disease prone. It pays to do your homework. A few listed as powdery mildew resistant include 'Charles Joly' (double flowered purple), 'Madame Lemoine' (double flowered white), 'President Lincoln' (blue), 'Primrose' (creamy white) and 'Sensation' (purple and white bicolored petals).
Most of us think of Common lilacs with their portly flowers and grab-your-nose fragrance; however, numerous other species and hybrids offer a wide array of flowers, flowering periods and plant sizes.
Flowering in mid-late May (a bit later than Common lilac) is Dwarf Korean lilac or Palibin lilac (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin'). Its leaves and plant size are smaller than most; therefore, easier to use in the landscape. 'Palibin' is a dense non-suckering shrub of 4-6 feet tall. The pinkish purple flowers are not as bodacious as the common lilac, but the fragrance still packs a punch. Most of the flowers are sterile so few seed capsules are produced. 'Palibin' generally requires little pruning and does not flower well if it is sheared.
Manchurian lilac (Syringa pubescens subsp. patula) includes the ever popular 'Miss Kim' cultivar. As a 5-7 feet tall non-suckering and disease resistant shrub it's perfect as a shrub border. The fragrant pale violet flowers appear later and are a bit smaller than the common lilac. 'Miss Kim' also does not respond well to shearing.
A group of hybrid lilacs include the Fairy Tale Series® with their small leaves, slow growth, non-suckering compact growth and good disease resistance. 'Bailbelle' (Tinkerbelle®) has wine red buds that open to deep pink flowers.For most of us reblooming lilacs are a dream come true. Josee® (light lavender-pink) and Bloomerang® (deep purple) are two reblooming cultivars. The flowers are not as large or fragrant as common lilac; however, blooms cover the shrubs in mid to late May. As temperatures cool in late summer rebloomers develop more flowers. Not as many flowers are produced the second time, but still a sight and smell to behold. Lilacs in autumn – what will they think of next.