How to Plant and Grow Lilac

These sweetly scented hardy harbingers of spring come in many sizes and flower colors.

With sweetly scented, pastel blooms and heart-shaped leaves, lilacs stand out in the landscape as welcome harbingers of spring. These plants come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including dwarf and midsize shrubs, and small trees with showy bark. Consider planting multiple types of lilacs with a range of bloom times and colors to enjoy several weeks of attractive flowers and fragrances.

Lilac Shrubs Overview

Genus Name Syringa
Common Name Lilac Shrubs
Plant Type Shrub
Light Part Sun, Sun
Height 3 to 25 feet
Width 3 to 20 feet
Flower Color Blue, Pink, Purple, White
Foliage Color Blue/Green
Season Features Colorful Fall Foliage, Spring Bloom, Summer Bloom
Special Features Attracts Birds, Cut Flowers, Fragrance, Low Maintenance
Zones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Propagation Stem Cuttings
Problem Solvers Drought Tolerant, Good For Privacy

Where to Plant Lilac

Because lilacs come in a large range of sizes, from dwarf lilacs to tree lilacs, matching the variety to the available space in your yard is crucial. What all lilacs have in common, however, is that they need full sun and moist, well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil (pH around 7.0) Lilacs are hardy shrubs that do better in a cooler than in a hot climate.

Lilac can be planted as a specimen, mass-planted in groups or rows, and even grown as a hedge for privacy.

How and When to Plant Lilac

Lilac can be planted in the spring or in the fall, which is preferable because the warm soil encourages more root growth.

Dig a hole at least twice the diameter of the nursery container and about 3 inches deeper. Place the root ball in the hole and spread out the roots. Backfill with the original soil. Mulch around the base and water well.

The spacing depends on the variety; it can range between 5 feet for small types to 15 feet for large lilacs.

Lilac Care Tips


For best results, most lilacs, including common, dwarf, or tree lilacs, do best in full sun. Common lilacs can adapt to part shade, but it comes at the price of fewer flowers. Shady conditions also encourage powdery mildew, a frequent disease in lilacs.

Soil and Water

The planting site should have well-drained, evenly moist soil that is neutral to slightly alkaline. Lilacs are able to withstand dry conditions once they have been established.

Temperature and Humidity

Lilacs are very hardy shrubs that can grow as low as in zone 2. One problem that can occur in cold climates is that when there are warm spells in the early spring, followed by frost periods, the flower buds (which already formed the year before) might be killed by the frost.

The plants are not well-suited for hot climates above zone 8. A very humid climate is equally problematic because it provides ideal conditions for the spread of powdery mildew.


Once a year, in the early spring before new growth starts, fertilize your lilac with a complete balanced (10-10-10) fertilizer, preferably slow-release granular fertilizer. Too much fertilizer diminishes the bloom.


Regular pruning of a lilac bush is important to increase the airflow within the plants. Lilacs bloom on old wood, so prune them in the spring after the flower show is over for the season. Dead, diseased, or broken branches can be pruned any time of the year.

Potting and Repotting Lilac

With the exception of dwarf lilac varieties, lilacs are too tall and wide to be planted in containers; the best place for them is in the landscape. To plant a dwarf lilac in a container, pick a heavyweight pot such as terra-cotta that is less likely to topple over. Make sure it has large drainage holes. Fill it with a combination of potting mix and compost. Keep in mind that, unlike in-ground lilacs, container plants need frequent watering.

Pests and Problems

Lilacs are delightfully free of pests and diseases. The only common problem, which makes the shrub unsightly for a while but won’t kill it, is powdery mildew. It appears increasingly in mid to late summer, especially in hot, humid weather.

How to Propagate Lilac

Lilac bushes spread freely via shoots around the base of the plant so you should have no trouble propagating it. In the late spring or early summer, dig up a shoot, taking care to keep the roots intact. Sever the shoot from the main plant and replant it in a container filled with damp potting soil or directly in garden soil. You can dust the bottom third with rooting hormone powder but it’s not required. However, keeping the shoot moist at all times is important. In a few weeks to a couple of months, you should see new growth, which is a sign that new roots are forming.

Types of Lilac

The common lilac (with which most people associate the fragrance) is the species Syringa vulgaris. Native to Europe, this deciduous shrub was brought to the United States by colonists who could not imagine living without the plant's pleasing scent. The common lilac reaches 8 to 12 feet high and 6 to 10 feet wide, with dark green leaves, purple flowers, and brownish-gray to gray bark. This type of lilac works well as a single specimen planting or in groups as screens, hedges, or shrub borders. Hundreds of cultivars boast a range of floral colors that include purple, blue-purple, lavender, magenta, reddish-purple, pink, and white.

Dwarf lilac varieties are smaller in scale than the common lilac but offer similar flower colors and scents. These shrubs reach 4 to 6 feet in height, which makes them suitable plants for small gardens and even containers. With their compact branching, the dwarf plants can be trained as hedges and topiaries. Their tighter growth habit requires less time and maintenance than the common lilac. The Meyer lilac, or dwarf Korean lilac, is one of the better known varieties. Four feet high and 5 feet wide, this little shrub produces dark violet flowers. Some varieties boast spectacular fall foliage in shades of orange, yellow, and burgundy.

Japanese tree lilac reaches 20 to 30 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide, proportions that make it a good choice for street plantings and hedges, or as a screen along property lines. This lilac produces fragrant creamy-white flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds in late spring to early summer, a little later than the shrub lilacs. It also boasts dark green leaves and showy reddish-brown bark that peels as the tree ages, making it an interesting visual to enjoy in winter.

'Angel White' Lilac

Syringa 'Angel White' lilac blooms in vase
Andre Baranowski

Syringa vulgaris 'Angel White' bears large trusses of strongly fragrant white flowers. This selection tolerates heat better than most. It grows 12 feet tall and 10 feet wide. Zones 3-9

Bloomerang Lilac

purple bloomerang lilac

Syringa 'Penda' offers clusters of fragrant purple flowers in spring, then again from summer to fall. It grows 5 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Zones 3-7

Dwarf Korean Lilac

Lilac shrubs
Jerry Pavia

Syringa meyeri 'Palibin' is a compact variety that grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, with small, dark green foliage. It blooms early, bearing fragrant panicles of light lavender-pink flowers. Zones 4-7

'Edith Cavell' Lilac

Edith Cavell lilac
Peter Krumhardt

Syringa vulargaris 'Edith Cavell' bears large clusters of double, creamy-white flowers in spring. It grows 25 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-8

'Frederick Law Olmstead' Lilac

Frederick Law Olmstead lilac
Alise O'Brien

Syringa vulgaris 'Frederick Law Olmstead' bears dense panicles of single white flowers on a shrub growing 22 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-8

'George Eastman' Lilac

george eastman lilac growing in garden
Todd Dacquisto

Syringa julianae 'George Eastman' is a dwarf type that grows 6 feet tall and wide and produces loose clusters of long, tubular deep pink florets from wine-red buds. Zones 2-7

'Miss Kim' Lilac

Miss Kim lilac
Bill Stites

Syringa pubescens subsp. patula 'Miss Kim') is a dwarf, late-blooming lilac, to 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide that produces erect clusters of pale lilac-blue flowers. Zones 5-8.

'Mount Baker' Lilac

white Mount Baker lilac flowers
Jerry Pavia

Syringa hyacinthiflora 'Mount Baker' is an early flowering variety with broad leaves that deepen to purple in fall and large, single white flowers. It grows 15 feet tall and wide. Zones 3-7

'Pink Perfume' Bloomerang Lilac

pink perfume lilac
Justin Hancock

Syringa x 'Pink Perfume' is an addition to the Bloomerang series. This compact lilac bears fragrant pink flowers in spring, then reblooms from midsummer through fall. Zones 3-7

'Pocahontas' Lilac

Pocahontas lilac
Peter Krumhardt

Syringa hyacinthiflora 'Pocahontas' is an early flowering type with broad leaves and large flower spikes composed of richly scented, deep purple florets. It grows 15 feet tall and wide. Zones 3-7

'President Lincoln' Lilac

president lincoln lilac
Jerry Pavia

Syringa vulgaris 'President Lincoln' bears single, deep purple flowers that are very fragrant on a shrub that grows 22 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-8

'Saugeana' Lilac

Saugeana lilac
Jerry Pavia

Syringa x chinensis 'Saugeana' bears slightly nodding clusters of fragrant reddish purple flowers in late spring. It grows 15 feet tall and wide. Zones 5-8

'Sensation' Lilac

Sensation lilac
Peter Krumhardt

Syringa vulgaris 'Sensation' is a fast-growing shrub that bears spikes of single lavender flowers edged in white that shine from a distance. It grows 22 feet tall and wide. Zones 4-8

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is lilac a tree or a shrub?

    Some lilac varieties, such as the Japanese tree lilac, look like a tree. However, lilacs are generally considered shrubs or bushes. Through pruning, you can make them appear more like a shrub with multiple stems or like a tree with a single trunk.

  • Are lilacs native to North America?

    No, lilacs are native to eastern Europe and temperate Asia. They were introduced to the United States by colonists so they have been an integral part of American landscaping for centuries.

  • Do I need to cover lilacs in the winter?

    Lilacs are very hardy shrubs that need no winterization or covering even in locations with subzero winters. That does not mean that they don't suffer damage in extreme temperature fluctuations, such as a warm spell during the winter following by extreme cold, which can damage the flower buds. If you live in an area with very cold winters, plant your lilac in a spot where it is somewhat protected from icy winter winds, such as on the south side of a house.

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