Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Lilacs - the true herald of spring

Just outside our backdoor stands an old lilac bush. Last year it didn't bloom and I considered removing it because it was misshapen and real woody. To my surprise, this year was a completely different story. The bush was absolutely bursting with the most fragrant blooms I've ever seen. Needless to say, I wanted to learn more about lilacs and share the information with you.

Lilacs (Syringa) are often thought of as the herald of spring, with the time of their flowering indicating whether spring will be early or late. According to Greek mythology, Pan, the god of forests and fields, was captivated by the beautiful nymph Syringa's beauty and chased her through the forest. Frightened, Syringa turned herself into a fragrant flowering bush, the lilac. In the language of flowers, purple lilacs represent the first emotions of love and white lilacs are youthful innocence.

The lilac is native to northern China, but with over 1500 varieties now cultivated, they can be found planted around the world. Blossoms range in color from white, yellow, pink, lavender, reddish-purple, magenta, purple and blue.

The most well known lilac is the Common Purple. We see it everywhere! It will grow to 12-15 feet tall by 8-12 feet wide, but if you don't have that kind of space, there are many varieties that will remain smaller.

Lilacs do best in a sunny location, but will tolerate light shade. If they start to become too leggy, they are reaching for the sun and will bloom less and a brighter location would be preferable. They can tolerate almost all kinds of soil, but perform best in loose, well-drained soil. You should fertilize your lilacs once a season before they start putting on new growth in spring. Use a good balanced tree and shrub fertilizer 10-10-10 or 10-12-10. Do not use one that is high in nitrogen because it will promote green growth instead of blooming and this can cause weak growth that is prone to disease.

The real key to success with a lilac is in the pruning. To keep your lilac vigorous, a yearly maintenance trim is recommended. Most lilacs bloom on the previous year's growth and should be pruned as soon as the blooms fade.

The later you prune, the more you will affect next season's blossoming. As soon as the lilac is done blooming, take your clippers and remove the spent flowers. Trim the old flower cluster off at its base - just above the new shoots. This will prevent the shrub from making seeds and encourage the creation of next year's buds.

We have all seen older, mature lilac bushes that have a crown of leaves on top, bare below and have suckers coming up from the base. To rejuvenate an older suckering lilac, remove one-third of the oldest stems at ground level each year for the next three years. This will encourage the growth of new vigorous stems from the base.

Questions or comments? Contact Jim Gainan via email at Jim Gainan is a VP/shareholder of Gainan's Floral and Garden Center in Billings.