With its sweet scent, pastel blooms, and heart-shape leaves, lilac stands out as a welcome harbinger of spring. The spring-blooming lilac comes in a variety of shapes and sizes—including dwarf shrubs, the midsize common lilac, and large trees with showy bark. Consider planting multiple types of lilacs with a variety of bloom times and colors to enjoy weeks of attractive flowers and fragrances.
The common lilac (with which most people associate the fragrance) comes from 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. Because of its hardiness, this type of lilac works well as a single specimen planting or en masse as screens, hedges, or shrub borders. The hundreds of cultivars boast a wide 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—an interesting visual to enjoy in winter.
Lilac Care Must-Knows
For best results, grow common, dwarf, or tree lilacs in full sun with well-drained, evenly moist soil. These plants withstand droughts well once they have been established. Common lilacs can adapt to part shade, but doing so will see fewer flowers produced in spring. Part shade also encourages powdery mildew, a frequent disease in lilacs. Counteract mildew by planting lilacs in full sun and pruning them regularly to increase airflow around the plants. Lilacs bloom on old wood, so prune them in the spring after the flower show is over for the season.
More Varieties of Lilac
'Angel White' lilac
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
Syringa 'Penda' is a recent selection that 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
Syring meyeri 'Palibin' is a compact variety that grows 4-6 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
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
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
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
'Ivory Silk' tree lilac
Syringa reticulata 'Ivory Silk' is a small tree (12 feet tall and 6 feet wide) bearing panicles of sweet-smelling creamy-white flowers in early to midsummer. Young plants feature a reddish bark. Zones 4-7
'Miss Kim' lilac
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
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
Syringa x 'Pink Perfume' is an addition to the Bloomerang series. This compact lilac bears fragrant pink flowers in spring, then reblooms from mid-summer through fall. Zones 3-7
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
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
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
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