As I’m sitting at home writing this column, a terrier snores on the ottoman next to me and the heady fragrance of lilacs fills the air. When the “Sensation” lilac burst into bloom this week, I couldn’t resist bringing in a vase of fresh blooms. I planted the French hybrid 10 years ago this spring, and the large and showy purple blooms trimmed in crisp white never fail to impress.
A garden exists in many layers — the ground underfoot, the seeds, seedlings and plants we sink into the ground, and the visual impact when plants begin bearing vegetables, fruits and flowers. But a garden isn’t just what you see; it’s also what you can smell. Spring is the most fragrant season – lilacs, peonies, viburnums, flower crab apples, even the smell of soil as you dig — it’s all intoxicating.
Lilacs stir the soul. I have several old lilac bushes — a white one and a pink French hybrid — whose names are lost to time. In addition to “Sensation,” a dark purple “Bloomerang” blooms heavily for weeks. Throughout summer and fall, I’ll spy occasional blooms on its branches.
Last year, I added a new lilac to the family, the recently introduced “Bloomerang” dwarf pink lilac. This petite lilac is supposed to be vigorous, sporting pure pink blooms and about 1/3 the size of a conventional lilac.
Lilacs have been cultivated for more than 300 years, and there are roughly 1,000 syringa varieties, including tree, bush and dwarf forms. Only a few are commonly available, and most are hard as nails and long-lived.
Dwarf lilacs allow gardeners to put lilacs in small and tight spaces. While conventional lilacs can tower up to 15 feet, dwarfs are compact and mounded, reaching 48 to 60 inches in full sun and well-drained soil. The plants are hardy, and reblooming is encouraged by snipping off spent blooms.
All lilacs can benefit from occasional feeding. If lilacs are near or in the lawn, don’t get nitrogen-rich lawn fertilizer too close, or you’ll have foliage but few flowers.
Remove spent blooms, but don’t trim or prune any lilac after July 4, or you’ll be removing next year’s blooms. After blooming, remove small suckers and shoots at ground level, but leave behind a few healthy, strong shoots.
Other varieties to check out include “Scentura Pura” and “Scentura Double Blue,” both hyacinthiflora lilacs, the most fragrant lilacs on the market (“hyacinth” in the name is a good clue), pink “Scent and Sensibility,” “Pink Perfume Bloomerang,” pure white “Betsy Ross” and the beautiful wine-red “Charles Joly.”