Lilac Bush Plant Profile

Lilacs on a bush
David Beaulieu

Common lilac bushes (Syringa vulgaris) are deciduous shrubs that bloom in late spring. 'Wedgewood Blue' is an example of a cultivar of this plant. Syringa is a member of the olive family, along with other such ornamental plants as ash trees, forsythia shrubs, and privet shrubs.

The outstanding quality of many lilacs is the smell of their flowers. However, not all types are equally fragrant; grow Syringa vulgaris when in doubt if the smell is your main interest. They are among the most fragrant flowers available to gardeners in cold climates. The smell of Syringa blossoms is one of the most unforgettable aromas of the plant world.

Botanical Name Syringa vulgaris
Common Name Lilac bush
Plant Type Deciduous shrub
Mature Size 6 to 16 feet tall and 8 to 12 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Loamy
Soil pH Neutral (pH near 7.0)
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Lavender-blue, white, burgundy, deep purple, lilac
Hardiness Zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Native Area Southeastern Europe
Freshly cut Lilacs flowers
Gabriela Tulian / Getty Images
Syringa vulgaris 'Decaisne', Lilac with Juniperus x pfitzeriana 'Aurea' and Wisteria floribunda 'Macrobotrys', photographed in May at Wickham Place Farm, Witham, Essex, UK
Pedro Silmon/ArcaidImages / Getty Images

How to Grow Lilac Bushes

Common lilac bushes are attractive enough to be treated as specimens. They are also often planted in rows along property borders and pruned into loose hedges. The 'Miss Kim' cultivar is small enough for use in foundation plantings, as is the even more compact Bloomerang lilac, which is a dwarf shrub.

These wonderful bushes are, unhappily, prone to powdery mildew disease, so be sure to provide good air circulation by keeping their branches pruned. If your lilacs are not flowering, there are some tricks you can try. A frequent problem growers have with common lilacs is that they become too big as the years go by. This happens when you (or the prior landowner) have failed to stay ahead of their growth. But the problem is fixable by trimming the overgrown lilacs, which will also help rejuvenate them.

Light

Grow lilac bushes in full sun. They will tolerate some shade but bloom best when grown in full sun. They do not do well in full shade.

Soil

Lilac bushes prefer a rich, well-drained, loamy soil with a neutral soil pH, but they will still grow in clay soil, just not as well.

Water

Water lilacs fully, but do not keep the soil wet. The roots do best in well-drained soil that does not stay wet. Overwatering will lead to poor blooms. It is fine to mulch around the base of the plant to help retain moisture if desired.

Temperature and Humidity

Lilacs do best in cool-summer climates and up to USDA plant hardiness zone 7. They are not recommended for hot, humid areas, such as Southern U.S. states in zones 8 or 9.

Fertilizer

Lilac bushes can benefit from a spring feeding, as long as the nitrogen is kept in check. Too much nitrogen in the soil leads to poor blooms.

Propagating

Anyone who has grown lilacs know how they readily they expand and spread. Most lilacs are clump-forming plants that spread via shoots extending from the trunk. To propagate a new plant, simply dig down around one of the shoots and cut it from the main plant, including the roots, then replant the shoot in beneficial soil. Water the transplant dutifully until it is established.

Pruning

Pruning is critical for lilacs, both to promote flowering and to ensure air circulation to prevent powdery mildew and other problems.

The right time to prune is just after blooming is over, since these are shrubs that bloom on old wood. Prune branches to thin out the growth (for better air circulation) and to keep the height of the plants in check. In addition, cut the dead flowers off when they are done blooming. This will prevent the seed from forming and thereby promote more profuse flowering the next spring.

Varieties of Lilac Bushes and Trees

'Wedgewood Blue' is a compact variety of lilac bush that attains a height at maturity of only 6 feet, with a spread equal to that. But the species plant can grow to be anywhere from 8 to 20 feet high. Flower color for 'Wedgewood Blue' is lavender-blue, and the flowers are contained in thick clusters.

Because of the height of many bush lilacs, people sometimes refer to them as "lilac trees," lumping them in with the other wonderful flowering trees of spring. These plants should not, however, be confused with the true "tree lilacs," that is, Japanese tree lilacs (Syringa reticulata) and Chinese tree lilacs (Syringa pekinensis).

True "tree lilacs" (Syringa reticulata and Syringa pekinensis) bloom a bit later than lilac bushes. Their blooms are white, and they are not as aromatic as the flowers of common lilac bushes. But the tree lilacs do have an attractive bark, especially the Chinese tree lilac, which has a shedding bark similar to that of the paper birch.