Lilacs: The Power Of Fragrance

Good news: the season of Monday to Friday business travel is over for me, at least for this year.  Free at last! After working late Friday night, I drove home Saturday morning. Once home, the first thing I did was inspect the garden.

Our common lilac, planted last year. I put this in to make Judy happy, but I love it as much as she does.
Our common lilac, planted last year. I put this in to make Judy happy, but I love it as much as she does.

Overall, things looked pretty good. One thing I was sorry to see, though, was that the blooms on our new lilac (a plain old common lilac, Syringa vulgaris) were pretty much done. I had planted this young lilac last year, right outside the window on the east side of the house.

I regretted that I had been around for only a small fraction of our lilac’s brief period of bloom.

This got me thinking about lilacs in general. Why do people (including me) love them? They tend to take up a lot of room, they get leggy, and they have little to offer for the 50 weeks or so per year when they are not blooming. What’s more, they are not native to North America and have limited wildlife value.

Eventually this lilac should reach ten feet or so.
Eventually this lilac should reach ten feet or so.

These criticisms apply equally to lilacs and forsythia. Yet I think it is far more common for people to scorn forsythia. The difference is obvious: for that brief period, lilacs have an intoxicating fragrance. If forsythia were fragrant, it would not provoke nearly as much grimacing or eye rolling among certain persons.

Fragrance is powerful. It can stir memories and emotions. For me, the smell of lilac is a confirmation that it is indeed springtime, that life is renewing, and that life can be sweet. It brings on a sense of well-being and optimism.

It should also be said that lilacs are fairly low maintenance. Tomorrow I will cut off the flower panicles to prevent seed production, which should result in more bloom next year. That’s about all I have to do. Since it’s only 4′ tall, it doesn’t need much if any pruning.

Do you have lilacs in your garden? What is your favorite fragrant plant?

53 Comments on “Lilacs: The Power Of Fragrance

  1. Love my lilacs! While growing up in Texas my mother pined for those she left behind in Pennsylvania. And for those if us out here in barrington with a little property where deer come thru daily you gotta love a deer resistant plant that doesn’t mind the alkaline soil.

    • I can easily imagine being homesick for lilacs if I moved to a place where they couldn’t grow. Didn’t realize they were deer resistant.

  2. Yes, I’m a big fan, too. We have a Syringa vulgaris and also a Syringa meyeri, which blooms a little later. This year, they crossed for a few days, and the S. meyeri is at peak bloom right now. Even with rabbit damage, it’s looking good and is filled with blooms. Love it. Glad to hear you’ll have a little more time to enjoy your garden now. It sure is impressive!

  3. Fragrance is indeed powerful and not only does it stir memories but it also affects us physiologically. Unfortunately, I don’t grow Lilacs but was planning to plant some this year.. but I didn’t.. My fragrant plants include jasmine, gardenia, lavender, roses, buddleias (which obviously is a summer Lilac but not what you are referring to I guess), citrus trees with beautifully scented citrus blossoms and all kinds of herbs. I also love the scent of the roots of my cucumber plants. I am pretty much obsessed with scent in the garden.

    • I didn’t know Buddleias were called Summer Lilacs. I can sort of see where that would come from. I can’t grow jasmine or gardenias. I know the scent of jasmine, it is lovely, but I’m not familiar with gardenias.

  4. Hello! I love Lilacs, although I cannot name which is which… I do love their fragrance, it takes away the fish smell in the house, hahaha! Unfortunately the lilac tree in the backyard didn’t last long this spring…not even 2 weeks! It usually lasted for 3 in the past… and another weird thing was, they didn’t bloom as much as it did before…nevertheless your lilac plant is a beauty!

    • Thank you, it has some growing to do. I wonder why your lilac did not bloom as long, maybe it wants a top dressing of composted manure.

      • Probably that is why 😦 Thanks for mentioning that one! 😀

  5. I don’t have lilacs, but do love to see and smell them in our neighbourhood. My rockery is full of lavender, and I’m looking forward to it flowering soon. Then I will make lavender ice cream to capture that scent!

    • I am embarrassed to admit I’m not sure what lavender smells like. I may try planting some if I can make the space.

      • What, no lavender?! You must try and find a spot for a plant or two… you won’t regret it! (And bees love it too).

  6. I have a Korean lilac and this year was the first year I really got the appeal. Walking out and being hit by that fragrance . . . Oh yeah.

    • Exactly. There are some lilacs at our Springfield office, sadly pruned into little meatballs, but they do bloom and give me a little lift every time I walk in or out.

  7. Hello Jason! Sorry I’ve been all quiet, I’ve neglected blogging for gardening and just catching up again now! I love Lilacs, we have two of them and they’re both well over 10 foot! Unfortunately neither have flowered this year? We prune them back every year but something went wrong last time I guess? I think Adam pruned them too early. We are both quite upset but hoping for a wonderful come back next year! I hope all is well with you 🙂

    • All is well, Anna, and you don’t need to apologize for being too busy to blog. As to the lilacs, Adam didn’t prune them in the spring before they bloomed? That would be too early. More commonly people prune them too late, in summer or fall after the buds are formed. Take care.

  8. I have a lilac that came with the house. It has the deficiencies you cite, plus it tends to get mildewed in August. It is so tall, I gave up trying to prune the spent blossoms, and that has not seemed to affect its bloom – this year it was particularly grand. Still, I’d like to replace it with something. Spice bush?

  9. Yes you’re absolutely right! I still remember the lilac that grew at the spigot where we got water for my granddad’s allotment – I remembering hauling watering cans full of water from that spigot to the tomatoes every summer – both wonderful fragrances that I love, and fond reminders of my grandfather. I don’t think lilacs would do so well where I live, somehow – but I enjoy the ceanothus – called wild lilac because of the resemblance. Not that fragrant though!

    • In your climate you are able to grow so many fragrant plants, though. Not sure if any are native, but neither is lilac.

  10. If you have a large garden you can plant varieties that will give you six weeks of bloom. Providing you don’t have a variety that mildews, I say, the scent is worth the months of just plain green. Jennifer Bennet has an excellent book ‘Lilacs, for the garden’. Although it may be out of print now. After I finished reading it, was thinking what shall I take out so I can have more….

  11. There is nothing wrong with “common,” whether it’s lilac or forsythia! Every now and then gardeners should be allowed to do something totally selfish like plant a lilac because we like the way it smells.

    • Hear, hear! I’ve thought that a good subject for a post is the tendency to dislike certain plants just because they are widely used. Though I can’t say I’m not guilty of that myself, sometimes.

  12. I lucked into having a full grown lilac tree in our yard when we moved in. It is two stories high and right now is chock full of blossoms right at eye level from our favourite window. It’s gorgeous, but one of the specimens that doesn’t have much scent. It smells nice but not overpowering.

    My favourite fragrant plant is one that I have only gotten to flower this year, which also came with the house. It’s a wisteria and it’s taken me a decade to finally get it to bloom, and not only are the foot long bunches of flowers pretty, they smell so nice.

    But then again, I also really love my lavender patch!

  13. Hi Jason! What a nice post! I can feel that aroma! Lilac is very popular in Russia where I grew up. Everyone loves lilac there! But, the time of its blooming was not an easy time for gardeners: traditionally, graduates brought bunches of lilac flowers to their teaches. Those students who didn’t have the lilac bushes in their own gardens used to ‘borrow’ flowers from the neighbors’ gardens. Some plants were stripped 100% in one night. I don’t know if it happens nowadays.
    My lilac is done blooming. It’s so tall, I can remove faded flowers only on its lower branches.

    • I was in Moscow and St. Petersburg three years ago, but it was November and there were no lilac blooms. I would love to go back, perhaps some day I will be able to in the spring.

  14. I have to say I am not a fan of lilacs, and it is especially the fragrance that puts me off. Too sweet for me. And after the fragrance and brief bloom, there is not much to like. But I do love seeing them all over New England, gracing old farmsteads and doorways, reminding me of the gardeners who were here before. But for me — nah. I had two by the east side of the house and took them out. I’m glad you enjoy yours!!

    • Too sweet? I guess when it comes to plants, a fragrance cannot be too sweet for me. On a person it could be a bit much.

  15. Wow, this one we have a difference on… I am shocked since we almost have identical plants and thoughts on those plants. 😀

    I find the lilacs very much in demand here in garden design. People adore them in WNY. The butterflies adore them if the weather is warm when they bloom and butterflies arrive. The lilacs in my yard last year were covered in Red Admirals. I don’t take off spent blooms and each year they bloom like crazy. My posts on them this year show that to be true. I also trim mine and have cut them to the ground twice to avoid the leggy look. They do need training and trimming. As for forsythia, I am not a fan, but many are in WNY. The poor things get trimmed to the shape of rounded yellow suns. Yuck.

    • I will keep what you say in mind as my little lilac grows up. I didn’t think you were supposed to cut lilacs to the ground but instead use the 1/3 approach if you wanted to rejuvenate. As to our disagreement, it wouldn’t be normal to think the same about everything in the garden, would it?

  16. I have them in my garden. I didn’t plant them, but they are extremely agressive. I don’t know about yours but mine spread by deep, long root and they can easily take up the whole garden easily. One of the most beautiful smell of flowers and which are not aggressive are tube rose and jasmine.

  17. Well my favorite fragrant plant is, obviously, the rose (also because you can have hundreds of different scents from different cultivars). Anyway we planted a syringa some months ago, s. retroflexa or something like that, it has nice lax panicles and it smells good. I’ve bothered on your same points before planting it though and at the end I decided I had some spare room to give away in the garden but at least it had to be to a particular variety.

    • Yes, roses can have wonderful fragrance. I think a rose without scent is kind of pointless. And they provide that scent after all the fragrant plants of spring are done.

  18. Ah I do like lilacs, especially the purple ones (that don’t show the brown so fast as the flowers decay) but can’t find a space here – as you say a large footprint for a short season of interest!

  19. My lilac blooms went fast once the temperatures soared up into the 90s, but I enjoyed them while they lasted. I inherited a love of fragrant flowers, including lilacs, from my mother. I’m not sure I can choose a favorite, though. Peonies are wonderful, and someday I may grow roses for their wonderful scent. I also have a special affection for fragrant daylily cultivars.

  20. With lilacs being the state flower, I have purple and white along with Dwarf Korean purple. Love them. The smell reminds me of taking bouquets to the teacher in grade school. Most fragrant flower for me is a peony.

  21. Hi Jason, I love the smell of lilacs and there are many around where we are. Unfortunately, we couldn’t possibly fit one in the garden, although I think dwarf varieties are becoming available so I’ll have to look at those.

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