Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 565-A   May 3, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

About now, seldom in April, is when the early kinds of Lilacs bloom. Then their colorful clusters of flowers are gathered for fragrant bouquets to decorate our homes, churches, schoolrooms and offices. Ever since it was brought from Europe to America by early colonists, the lilac has been by far the most common and best-loved flowering shrub in northeastern United States, and a favorite for decorating graves on Memorial Day. They say that, in Colorado, in the early days of its settlement, "wherever went a woman -- to the mines, to the farms, to the towns -- there went a slip of lilac bush. .

Here in the Middle West, lilacs provide masses of shrubbery in parks, cemeteries, country estates and suburban lawns; and are often used as hedges between city lots. In rural towns and on farms, most homes have at least one lilac in their yards. In our forest preserves many former homesites are marked by old lilac bushes that have become very tall, with dense thickets of stems that grew as "suckers" from the roots.

Lilacs belong to the Olive Family which includes three other common shrubs introduced into America -- privet, forsythia and jasmine -- as well as our native ash trees. The scientific name for the group is Syringa but the mock orange, often called "syringa" incorrectly, is not related to it.

There are about 30 species originating from southeastern Europe to the Himalayas, China, Manchuria and Japan. However, by cross-breeding and other methods, hundreds of varieties have been developed. Now, at Arnold Arboretum in Boston and Morton Arboretum near Lisle, in DuPage county, there are lilacs with flowers that are white. yellowish white, various shades from pink to deep red, or shades of blue from pale to purple. Some are "double-flowered" varieties. Some are very fragrant, others are almost scentless, and one has a strong disagreeable odor. Some bloom in early spring -- how early depends, of course, upon the weather -- but a few kinds do not flower until midsummer.

Most lilacs are shrubs that, if allowed to grow without pruning, may become from 10 to 25 feet tall. However, some seldom grow to be more than a few feet high and one, native to Japan, is a tree that attains a height of 30 feet. In general, they have dark green foliage -- the pointed oval leaves are smooth and placed in pairs -- and, near the ends of the twigs, bear large showy erect panicles (loose clusters) of many little bell-shaped four-petalled flowers. These are followed by small brown capsules of seeds.

Aside from their beauty, lilacs are popular because they are hardy in north temperate climates; are easy to grow from seed or from cuttings; are easy to transplant; and will grow almost anywhere. They prefer a soil that is moderately rich and moist but not too wet. They are more free from serious damage by diseases and insect pests than most shrubs. Further, they are not discouraged by drastic pruning.

If the flower clusters are neatly snipped off above the buds that will produce flowers next year, that keeps the bush from becoming too tall. If the tops are sheared off, regardless of the flower buds -- as a hedge -- they will continue to prosper but will not bloom. If cut off at ground level, next spring a lilac will send up a number of lusty sprouts.

About the middle of May -- it has occurred as early as May 9 and as late as May 25 -- thousands of lilacs and hundreds of varieties will be in full bloom at Lilacia Park, Lombard, and at Morton Arboretum. Watch the newspapers for their announcements. Then you can revel in feasts of fragrance and color.

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