Lilacs have captivated the imagination of gardeners for years, providing sufficient enchantment to define both a color and a fragrance. All lilacs belong to the genus Syringa, but they are not all the same. Some 20 species and hundreds of cultivars compete for space in your garden. Here is an overview of the many different types of lilac plants that could light up your backyard.
Species Lilac Plants
Species lilac plants are those found in nature. The popular common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), with its valentine-shaped leaves and lavender spring flowers, grows in the wild in eastern Europe and thrives in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 7. It was imported to western Europe before 1600 and traveled from there to North America. All species have one quality in common: a lovely fragrance. Otherwise, species plants can be quite different from the common lilac, and different from each other.
Perhaps the lilac with the most pronounced aroma is Syringa pubescens, a wild plant of China. Its flowers are white, not lilac, and the fragrance is both spicy and sweet. Another native of China, Syringa oblata, looks like the common lilac but blooms a fortnight earlier. Breeders have crossed this species with the common lilac to create the early-flowering hybrid group Syringa hyacinthiflora. Most of these hybrids produce abundant flowers that are fragrant and resist disease.
Cut-leaf lilac (Syringa protolaciniata) is a third Chinese species that gets its common name from its deeply dissected, fernlike leaves. It produces small, light purple flowers. The shrubs can grow to 8 feet high and 10 feet across.
If you like common lilacs but want something that blooms a little later, try some of the late-blooming lilac cultivars available on the market. They flower some 10 days after the common lilacs and include the hybrid group Syringa X prestoniae. These late-flowering shrubs may require pruning and some getting used to. They do not look like typical lilacs, nor do they offer the same fragrances. Try 'Miss Canada' for red-pink flowers or 'Agnes Smith,' with white flowers.
Some lilac cultivars are too tall to be called shrubs and reach the size of an apple tree. They flower a week or two after the latest common lilacs and bear off-white blossoms. Lovely shade trees, these plants often have interesting and dramatic bark. The Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) has rounder leaves than those of the Chinese tree lilac (Syringa pekinensis), but the Chinese version has attractive peeling bark.
Cultivars With Different Colors
The term "lilac" pushes purple buttons in your mind, but various lilac cultivars have flowers in various colors and hues. You can find lilac, of course, but also white, blue, purple, magenta, violet and pink. You want yellow? Try Syringa vulgaris 'Primrose' for creamy yellow flowers. Or Syringa v. 'Sensation' with purple blossoms that have white piping around each petal. Another to try: the 'Krasavitsa Moskvy' cultivar. The shrub is tall and slender, and flowers open pink before maturing into white.