By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru
The blooming and scent of the lilac trees is like an official mark of spring and the kick-off to gardening season. You can drive almost anywhere in the District, the older homestead farms, newer rural or lake properties and of course the settled areas, and you will always find lilacs like the traditional variety with the familiar medium-shade purple colour. But now you are beginning to see many of the new hybrids that range from white to varying shades of pink, magenta, purple and blue. But no matter what the colour the shrub is, the distinct scent is always the same. As we all know there is nothing like the first scent of the lilac to mark spring and the beginning of the gardening season, but did you know that Victorian poetry, refers to spring as the “Lilac Tide”?
What we refer to as the common lilac in North America, is actually native to mountainsides in southeastern Europe and was brought across the Atlantic in the late seventeenth century. A lilac bush was usually the only shrub in Colonial front yards. Although the flowers that were helpful for mitigating horrible scents lasted only about two weeks, farmers across North America followed the common practice to put lilacs by the outhouse.
Lilacs are a tough shrub that is willing to multiply by sending out side shoots and root suckers. They are so prolific that in some areas of the District, where they have been left unattended, it is common that a single tree has become a grove, large hedge or windbreak area. Another positive attribute of the lilac, is that they can endure our harsh winters and are a reliable bloomer every year.
The Latin name for the classic lilac is Syringa vulgaris (vulgaris meaning simply common). As beloved and historic as they are, lilacs do have some drawbacks such as, they are not the shapeliest of bushes. Once flowering is complete, the tree is just a dark leaved blob, most often by midsummer most lilacs get powdery mildew on their leaves and they are not particularly interesting in winter either as they do not have striking bark or an impressive form. If you worry about garden design, it is best to plant a lilac somewhere where it can fade into the background when the flowering is over as lilacs make a great border plant along the back of the perennial garden and nice backdrop for other plants like shrub roses, tall blooming perennials (i.e. coneflower, foxglove, delphiniums, etc.). They can also be planted in the forefront or used as an effective hedge or leafy screen to block a view or an unsightly part of your yard.
Once established, the lilac does require little care as they prefer a full sun position. Their preference is for a chalky clay soil but they will tolerate most soils except those which are acidic. Lilacs are easy to grow so any species of this shrub is great for the beginner gardener. Lilacs are often the shrub that comes with the house, are overgrown and with what flowers there are they are blooming way above nose-level.
There are close to 2,000 named lilacs to choose from in North America, many of which will grow in our zone, so if you want to plant a single shrub or start a lilac grove there are many choices.