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Let it be at once understood, that Syringa vulgaris is in no way a ‘vulgar’ shrub, for the ‘vulgaris’ aspect of the botanical name is often misunderstood as having connotations of vulgarity.  As with most botanical names, vulgaris is derived from the Latin language and simply means ‘common’ – hence the Common Lilac tag in general use.

However, the ‘Common’ Lilac is anything but, in the derogatory sense of the word, for this group of flowering shrubs has a wide range of beautiful hybridized cultivars which make it a good choice from any list of early flowering shrubs.

The inherent strength of the parent Syringa vulgaris has ensured its own popularity and has also been used as root stocks for many of the less robust types. Seedling S. vulgaris was at one time that main root stock for all lilacs, but with strength also comes a weakness. As a rootstock – eager to outdo its grafted cultivars - it was prone to sending up suckers, rather than being held back by its artificially induced grafted offspring!

Syringa vulgaris - Common Lilac with light pink bloomsThe problem of suckering was overcome many years ago, firstly by using common Privet as rootstocks. Privet belongs to the same Genus – Oleaceae – as will soon be realized with inspection and scent of the flowers (Lilacs in miniature – but alas all white!)

 As the many hybrids of the Common Lilac became stronger through better hybridization techniques, it was soon realized that they could grow on their own roots – rather than being grafted to rootstocks. This means the end of the suckering problem which did much to prevent its wider popularity and use.

About Syringa vulgaris – Common Lilac.

Syringa vulgaris and the vast majority of its hybrid cultivars are large shrubs – sometimes grown as small standard trees when grafted to a long S. vulgaris stem, but normally multi stemmed upright growing shrubs to around 4 metres height and spread in five years. This is variable according to cultivars and cultivation.  

The original common lilac was found in many areas of Eastern Europe which gives clue to is good hardiness as a garden shrub. The only problem of hardiness is that sometimes late frosts can spoil the young foliage if it has already started its late spring flush of growth. The blackened shoots can be cut out and re-growth will soon occur.

Flowers and Foliage

Large conical panicles of well-scented flower-heads in spring – made up from many small individual tubular flowers - are produced at the end of branches and shoots, which were grown the season year before. They do not flower on new shoots! They flower on last year’s shoots.  As such, they rarely need pruning – other than the deadheading described in out Syringa pruning guide.

Foliage is dense canopy of heart shaped leaves which are generally unattractive for much of the growing season.

Autumn leaf colour is a passing flash of dull yellow, for the leaves do not hang too long once the autumn sets in. This shrub is essentially grown for its flowering abilities and rarely disappoints for that.

Soil and Position

Common Lilacs are best planted in full sun which will help to ripen the growth, necessary to provide the masses of blooms the following year. It can be grown in light or dappled shade, but full sun is the preferred location. All Lilacs are best grown in well-drained soils which are either alkaline or neutral. They are not too happy in acid soil situations.

Allow enough room at the planting stage for the continuing development of a large shrub which can ultimately grow to 5 meters or more in height and spread. The upright growth at the start with small shrub will develop into a sizeable spreading bush.

Problems with Syringa vulgaris

Common Lilac nay be affected in areas where Honey Fungus is present. Take out affected shrubs and burn. Insect pests are rarely problematic – other than leaf miners – which leave unattractive ‘tunnels’ in foliage, rather than life-threatening.

Propagation of Syringa.

Seed can be collected and sown immediately, but the flowers of new plants rarely match that of the parent - the reason for this, being the intense hybridization of the cultivars.

Softwood cuttings can be rooted reasonably easily, but care is needed with ensuring humid conditions; a heated propagator being best way forward. After rooting, the cuttings should be potted and grown well as soon as there are enough roots. It is important to establish the new plants before the onset of winter. Getting the plants to survive through the first winter in normally the hardest part, so shelter or cover will be to your advantage.

Syringa can also be propagated by layers – either air layers or gently bending a new shoot to the ground and anchoring it in place until rooted.

Other Lilacs

There are other Lilacs (Syringa) within the family (Genus) that have perhaps ‘nicer’ sounding suffixes – for instance Syringa alpinum and S. villosa to use both ends of the alphabetical spectrum, but it can be forcibly – and correctly – argued that none surpass the beauty of the generally larger blooms of the Syringa vulgaris group. That is the main reason why the hybridists have chosen to grace this group with such a wide array of beauties.

List of popular cultivars of Syringa vulgaris.

Pruning Lilac 



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