The best lilacs to plant for a sparkling and fragrant spring


Lilacs naturalize easily and spring often sees these decorative renegades jostling among wild hazel and willow hoi polloi. Likewise, in a garden, they can be fairly easily added to a mixed hedge or used as a densely planted single-variety screen; try S. x chinensis ‘Saugeana’ (above) or ‘Prince Wollonsky’ for clouds of fragrant pink flowers. Both are vigorous but can be controlled by pruning. In a small space or front garden, use dense, hardy varieties such as S. josikaea and S. x chinensis alongside serviceberry and Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ for added interest.

Interesting foliage

The heart-shaped leaves of S. vulgaris cultivars and the small, rounded foliage of microphylla varieties are quite pleasing, and a splash of fall color is a plus, but it may be worth looking for varieties with leaves of unusual shape or color, to extend the season of interest. S. emodi ‘Variegata’ is a form of Himalayan lilac with lime-colored leaves that have a darker green spot in the center, while blue-flowered ‘Aucubaefolia’ has leaves that are green and splashed with light yellow. There are also a number of cutleaf lilacs, including S. x laciniata.

specimen tree

Specimen plants should be striking in full bloom, and with careful pruning of the lower branches early on, the canopy can be raised to create a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub – with the flowers as a bonus. For a tall plant consider S. reticulata ‘Ivory Silk’ which can reach 5m and flower in June or July. Of similar size is S. reticulata subsp. pekinensis ‘China Snow’, while S. emodi can reach over 4 m in height. S. vulgaris cultivars such as ‘Sensation’ (AGM) bicolor flowers or optimistic buttery ‘Primrose’ can provide a dramatic focal point.

How to grow lilacs

Before planting, soak the roots then dig a hole twice as large as the root ball, spread the roots and backfill. In shrubs, any graft must be well buried

Containers should be substantial – a minimum of 30cm deep and 60cm wide. Use peat-free potting soil for mature plants

Feed after flowering using a potassium-rich fertilizer like tomato food, and more often if the plant is growing in a container. Next season’s flowers are produced on the previous season’s growth, so prune right after flowering in late spring or early summer

how to cut flowers

Select fresh flowers and cut them early in the day while the air is still cool. Bring a bucket of water to the plant and dip the stems in it as you cut; leave the bucket in a cool, dark place for a few hours for the flowers to recover

Before disposing, cut the stems at 45 degrees to promote water absorption. Remove the excess foliage then arrange it in a large vase or a jug with a thick bottom; a drop of bleach or a teaspoon of vinegar will help flowers last longer

Lilacs look great on their own or combined with late tulips, apple blossoms, buttercups or foxgloves, as well as foliage


The Gobbet nursery; Burncoose; Crocus; Thompson and Morgan