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The Ultimate Guide to Lilac

There’s lots to love about the lilac – from its sweet scent to its striking colour, and its popularity with pollinators like bees and butterflies. It’s no wonder then that this classic bloom is back in flower fashion. Here we’ll explore how to care for lilacs, their symbolism and history, which types to grow and how to use them in a beautiful bouquet.

An introduction to lilac

Lilac is part of the Syringa genus of plants which has about 25 species in it. Grown as either a tree or deciduous shrub (meaning it sheds its leaves in autumn and grows new ones in spring), they can reach up to ten metres high, depending on the variety.

The lilac’s delicate flowers bloom together as brightly coloured clusters on individual branches to create a striking display in early spring. And while known for their ‘lilac’ colouring, they also come in shades of white, pink, blue and even yellow. Their scent is rose-like, fresh, with notes of almond – often compared to lily of the valley.

Originally from the woodlands and scrublands (areas with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters) of Southeast Asia and Southern Europe, lilac now grows in most places that have a moderate to warm climate. So there’s no reason why lilac shouldn’t do well in your garden too!

Lilac meaning and symbolism

Lilac historically signifies love, specifically that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling of first love. It’s probably why they’re traditionally a favourite for bridal bouquets. Lilac was even used to decorate Westminster Abbey for the wedding the Prince and Princess of Wales, Catherine and William.

Each colour of lilac also has its own meaning – from white symbolising innocence to blue representing tranquillity, and purple standing for spirituality.

Lilac facts

Lilac is part of the olive family (or the Oleaceae family if you want to get science-y). Other much-loved members include jasmine, ash and of course, the olive tree.

Lilacs have been known to live over 100 years! Which means if you have a lilac growing in your garden that you didn’t plant, it could go as far back as the 1920s.

Their botanical name Syringa can be traced back to Greek mythology. The story goes that the god Pan was chasing his love interest, Syringa, through a forest when she suddenly transformed herself into a lilac to hide from him. Pan picked a branch from Syringa’s disguise and used it to make the first panpipe. Fittingly, Syringa is a play on the Ancient Greek word for pipe: syrinx.

Lilac flowers are edible and make tasty syrups, jams and wine. Remember to always check the variety before using them though.

Often used in garden landscaping, lilacs can be trained to grow as natural fences due to their bushy shape and impressive height.

Types of Lilac

There are over 25 species of lilac, and within each there are lots of varieties (known in horticulture as cultivars) ranging in shade and size. To get you started, we’ve picked a few of our favourites.

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Syringa Vulgaris ‘Madame Florent Stepman’

We love this one for lots of reasons, but mostly for its origins. Florent Stepman de Messemaeker, the cultivator of this gorgeous lilac, created it as a token of his love for his wife, Marie Josèphe. A white-flowering shrub with a gorgeous scent, it’s great for smaller spaces.
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Syringa Vulgaris ‘Sensation’

The name says it all – a truly sensational lilac. Its bi-colour blooms (meaning of two colours) have a deep purple tone and are edged in a delicate white border, as though each one has been handpainted. Growing up to four metres high, this variety bursts into bloom from May.
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Syringa Microphylla ‘Superba’

A Littleleaf Lilac that produces (unsurprisingly) small green leaves and impressive trusses of rosy-pink flowers. The ‘Superba’ does well in most conditions – pop it in a pot, plant it in a border or train it as a decorative hedge.
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Syringa Meyeri 'Palibin'

Although given the more common name ‘Korean Lilac’, this dwarf-shrub species was first discovered in Beijing in 1909 by the Dutch botanist Frank Meyer. From late spring to early summer, the ‘Palibin’ puts on a showstopping display of pink scented flowers.

When to plant Lilac

The best time to placant lilac is in spring or autumn, when the ground isn’t too cold. Dig a hole and pop your plant in so that it’s level with the soil. Fill in the soil around your plant and water in well.

Lilacs can also be propagated (grown from clippings of another plant) and sown from seeds, but both take longer and it’s likely your plants won’t bloom for a few years.

How to care for Lilac

Lilacs don’t need much attention, but a little care here and there will help them do well year after year.

  1. Where to put lilac

    While happiest in chalky clay soil, lilacs grow well in most soil types. A sunny spot is best for lilacs – somewhere they’ll catch the sun for more than half the day. Think about how tall and wide your lilac is going to grow before deciding on a space (this will vary on the variety you choose, some types can reach over 20 feet tall!) You can grow lilac in pots too, just make sure you pick a smaller variety and a big enough pot (around 50 to 60cm wide).

  2. How often to water a lilac

    During their spring flowering season, water lilacs every week and more often if it’s been hot and sunny. Keep an eye on newly planted lilacs, as too little water can stress them out and mean they don’t bloom. During autumn and winter, your lilacs won’t need much watering at all. Once they’re a bit bigger and have been in the ground a few years, lilacs will even put up with periods of drought.

  3. Feeding

    In spring, mulch (this just means adding a layer of organic matter) around your lilac – four inches or so of bark or straw should do it. Lilacs do pretty well without fertilising them, but if they’re in poor soil or pots, a granular plant food will help them out.

  4. Pruning

    Pruning is when you cut back parts of a plant to help it thrive later on. The best time to prune lilac is straight after it’s flowered. If you prune any later, you might cut off new buds that would have flowered the following year. To prune your lilac, use secateurs to cut off any dead flowers right down to the first pair of leaves on the same branch, if you’ve got an unusual variety make sure you check the label in case there’s any extra advice.

When does Lilac flower?

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Exploding into colour in early spring, Lilacs will usually bloom from April onwards. Some varieties even flower up to early autumn.
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Creating a Lilac bouquet

Lilacs don’t just make your bouquet sing with sweet perfume, they also add a splash of colour. To create a lilac display yourself, give our step-by-step guide a go.

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Step one: Decide on your flowers - Roses, peonies and daisies look great with lilac in a bouquet, but you can choose any flowers that you think work well. Go for colours you love, think about fragrance and make sure the blooms you choose are available (some flowers just aren’t here year round). Depending on how big your bouquet is, two or three lilac stems should be enough.

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Step two: Build around your focal flower - You want your lilac to be the star of the show, so start with it in the centre of your bouquet and add your other flowers around it. Rotate as you go to give your blooms a natural shape.

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Step three: Fix the stems together - When your bouquet is done, firmly tie your stems together with twine or floral wire.

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Step four: Add the finishing touches - Your gorgeous display isn’t complete without some final embellishments. Think cotton ribbons or recyclable wrap as a finishing touch.

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