Late April and early May in the northwest are high season for all kinds of lilacs. They are coming into full bloom and their heavenly fragrance is enough to put even this cantankerous gardener into a good mood. I have several of the tall growing French Hybrids planted out behind one of our greenhouses where they are out of sight and completely ignored, except for this time of year when I pick arm loads of trusses for my wife to arrange in the house.
For the most part, when we talk about lilacs we are referring to the French Hybrids. These are large shrubs reaching 12 to 15 feet tall with dark green leaves and an upright growth habit. They tend to sucker from the base, thus creating a small thicket of branches that, in a good year, will be covered with panicles of intensely fragrant flowers in colors from white to dark purple. Plant them in full sun, water the first year and then forget about them - except to cut a bouquet once a year and remove an occasional old cane.
While these French hybrids can create some frustration, I would never discourage anyone from planting them. We have sold thousands of them in the 30+ years that I have operated the nursery with very few complaints. However, if you are looking for a shrub with the fragrance of a lilac but without the issues of diseases and insects and perhaps even a more compact growth habit, look no further than dwarf Korean Lilacs.
Dwarf lilacs look and smell just like their full size counter parts, only they actually bloom every year and don’t get racked with insects and diseases. Since they are an attractive shrub, you don’t have to relegate them to the back of the border and in fact you can plant them en masse as a hedge if you like. While the flower clusters may be smaller than those pumped-up French versions, there are so many of them that they will cover the entire plant in spring with the same intoxicating scent.
Miss Kim is probably the best known dwarf lilac on the market. It grows about six feet tall and as wide, and has dark glossy foliage that turns a burgundy red in the fall. The buds are purple and open into clusters of fragrant, pale lilac flowers about the same time or shortly after the French hybrids. Tinkerbelle is similar but with pink flowers. There are many other hybrids on the market to choose from.
Around 20 years ago, the first re-blooming dwarf lilac came onto the market from Canada called Josee. (Oddly enough, I have never seen it in the trade here in the northwest.) More recently, Proven Winners introduced the “Bloomerang” lilac that blooms heavily in the spring and if sheared back, will repeat bloom sporadically throughout the summer and then heavily again in the fall. Admittedly, results can be variable but even so, there are bound to be more blooms then just the one shot in spring. Bloomerang now comes in several shades of purple and a pink version called “Pink Perfume”. Another new re-bloomer is one called “Colby’s Wishing Star” (it is a sport from Josee) which only grows to 4 feet tall and has sweet pink blooms. As portion of the proceeds from the sales of “Colby’s Wishing Star” go to a fund to build a park for disabled kids (Colby was born with Down’s syndrome).
If you are looking for a lilac that is more compact, easy to grow, and repeat bloomer, then give the above dwarf lilacs a try this spring. You won’t be disappointed.