More than just lilac

Lilacs are great large shrubs for northern landscapes. They require little care, are long lived, and provide welcome color and fragrance in spring. You may not realize that by planting different selections of these old-fashioned shrubs you can have blooms for six weeks or more, and that they come in many colors other than lilac.

In my USDA zone 4 garden, I have lilacs that begin bloom on average the second week of May, and the last ends bloom the last week of June. There are two general groups of lilacs, the early bloomers which bloom in mid to late May in this zone (sooner in warmer zones), and the late bloomers in early to mid June in this zone. The early bloomers are mainly cultivars (cultivated varieties) of the common lilac species (Syringa vulgaris), while the late bloomers are often cultivars of various species or the Preston hybrids (Syringa x prestoniae).

The Preston lilacs were first hybridized by Isabella Preston at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa, Ontario. They are crosses between two species, and include such popular cultivars as the purple ‘Donald Wyman’, the white ‘Agnes Smith’, or the pink ‘James MacFarlane’.

Lilac specialists have come up with seven color groupings for lilacs that sometimes are seen with Roman numerals. Unless noted, these examples of good lilac choices are of the common lilac. The first group (I) are the white lilacs such as the single common lilac ‘Alba’, or the single Preston hybrid ‘Agnes Smith’. ‘Edith Cavell’ is a white double, as is ‘Mme. Lemoine’. ‘Primrose’ falls into this group, although the buds and flowers are a unique light yellow. One of my favorite lilacs is the Russian hybrid ‘Krasavitsa Moscovy’, seen also by its English name Beauty of Moscow. The pink-lilac buds open to double white blooms tinged with lavender.

The second color group (II) is violet. A very popular cultivar ‘Miss Kim’ of the Manchurian lilac (patula) has been grown for over half a century. Another very popular single in this color is the Korean lilac (meyeri) ‘Palibin’. Both flower a week or so later than the common lilacs, and are shorter. They make rounded shrubs six to eight feet high. Another single violet is the common lilac ‘Albert Holden’, while the more rare Russian hybrid ‘Nadezhda’ (meaning “hope”) is double.

Blue is the third (III) color group of lilacs and is less common. Most seen is the common lilac ‘President Lincoln’ with single flowers. Similar are ‘Wedgewood Blue’ and ‘Wonderblue’. ‘Oliver de Serres’ and ‘President Grevy’ are a couple of the less common blue doubles.

The true color lilac is the fourth group (IV), yet is less common than you might think. Common lilac cultivars ‘Michael Buchner’ and ‘Victor Lemoine’ have double flowers. Single lilac flowers are seen on the hyacinth lilac (hyacinthiflora) ‘Assessippi’, or the Preston hybrids ‘Charmian’ and ‘Isabella’.

The Lemoine name is worth more explanation, as this was the famous French family who in Victorian times bred so many common lilac cultivars, some that we still have today. The purple ‘Charles Joly’, the lilac ‘Michael Buchner’, and the blue ‘President Grevy’ are examples. In fact, the term “French lilacs” is often applied to any cultivar of common lilac, even though in recent years many have been selected in the United States, Canada, and other countries such as Russia.

The fifth group (V) of lilacs have pink flowers, such as the single Preston hybrids ‘Helen’, ‘James MacFarlane’, or ‘Miss Canada’. The species that were parents of the Preston hybrids (villosa and reflexa) are pink singles, as is another Asian species (wolfii). The hyacinth lilac ‘Annabel’ is a pink double. ‘Marie Frances’ is a single pink common lilac, while ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ is a reddish-pink double.

Red is the sixth (VI) color in lilacs, with the common lilac ‘Congo’ a single. ‘Beacon’ and ‘Hiawatha’ are single red Preston hybrids. ‘Jessie Hepler’ is a red single of a hybrid species (x josiflexa). A couple of the less common red doubles are the common Lemoine lilac ‘President Poincare’ and the hyacinth lilac ‘Sweetheart’.

The last (VII) but largest color group of lilacs is purple. Single common lilacs include ‘Ludwig Spathe’ and ‘Monge’. ‘Sensation’ is appropriately named, as this common lilac has purple single flowers, each with a white edge to the petals. Other purple singles are the hyacinth lilac ‘Pocahontas’ and the Preston hybrid ‘Donald Wyman’. ‘Charles Joly’ is a double purple cultivar of common lilac.

Look for some of these cultivars and colors the next time you visit a nursery, complete garden center, or public lilac display garden such as at the University of Vermont Horticulture Research Center. If you have just the common lilac in your landscape, why not add some other colors? If you don’t have any, why not start adding them if you have the room, sun, and well-drained soil. Allow sufficient space, as over time the short cultivars can spread 6 feet across, while most spread up to 12 feet across.

Dr. Leonard Perry is Extension Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. Visit his website at