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
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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Update: June 2012