Dunnville Horticulture Society

Get Growing: Lilac varities

I love the smell of lilacs in the air. Did you know that a lilac needs over 2,000 chill hours below 45°F during the winter, in order to flower? So, lilac’s are the ultimate cold-weather shrub and because of this love for chilly temperatures, I would never think to associate it with an olive tree. Yes, these deciduous, perennial plants are part of the olive family, Oleaceae. Who’d have thunk? Most lilacs thrive in  Zones 3-7, but some are hardy to Zone 2 . Other cultivars, bred specifically for warmer weather, grow well in Zones 8 and 9 – some even in parts of Zone 10.

There are 25 species of lilac and thousands of cultivars. Twelve species are in the genus Syringa; “syringa” comes from the ancient Greek word “syrinx,” which means pipe or tube. The branches of lilac shrubs are hollow yet strong. Many of these originated in France, thanks to the efforts of Victor Lemoine and his wife Marie in the 1870s and their son and grandson continued to breed lilacs, and between them the family  introduced over 200 cultivars between 1876 and 1953. Good Luck picking only one to add to your garden. French hybrids may be single flowered with four petals on each bloom, but some cultivars are double-flowered for an extra-full, lush look with as many as 12 petals on a single flower and they grow between four to 20 feet tall at maturity. Some have a compact, upright growth habit, while others tend to spread. In case you weren’t aware, Canada has Isabella Preston, she’s a notable plant breeder who has produced 82 different hybrid lilacs between 1912 and 1946. These are commonly referred to as Preston lilacs, or S . x prestoniae. Other common species include:

  • Korean lilacs  S. meyeri, aka S. pubescens, are spicy-sweet scented shrubs that grow just seven feet tall with a spread of five feet.
  • Persian  S. persica, which grows four to eight feet five to 10 feet, smells delightful, and is native to Iran.
  • S. emodi, aka Himalayan lilac, has an upright growth habit which can reach up to 16 feet tall with a spread of 13 feet and unlike most lilacs this one does not smell pleasant.
  • Japanese tree lilacs,  S. reticulata. These are a multi-branched tree that produces small cream-colored flowers and deep green leaves that drape elegantly over your grassy yard. Despite their small size, the early summer-blooming flowers pack plenty of scent. They can grow up to 30 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet.

Then there are the following which are just a few since there are hundreds of cultivars :

  • The Agincourt Beauty which blooms with huge florets that you can cut and place in a vase. It blooms from late April to early May and has some of the  biggest individual florets of all lilac species and cultivars. It thrives in Zones 3-7 and reaches a dazzling height of 10 to 12 feet tall with a spread of eight to 10 feet. So make sure you give it some room. 
  • The Beauty of Moscow is a shrub and forms soft-pink buds that bloom into white, double-flowered blossoms. Delicately beautiful, the flowers are also highly fragrant and it flowers in May. It’s hardy to Zones 3-7 and reaches a mature height of 10-12 feet, with a spread of up to eight feet.
  • The Common Purple S. vulgaris, this common lilac, is the species plant from which dozens of cultivars have been developed. It was brought to the United States from Europe in the 1700s. It will bloom in late May, and it’s adaptable to many types of soil. Its lavender-colored flowers give off that classic, sweet lilac scent. It’s hardy to Zones 3-7 and grows to a height and width of eight to 10 feet.
  • The Common White, (S. vulgaris var. alba) This is a subspecies of the purple common lilac, described above. The Common White thrives in Zones 2-7.
  • Here’s one I’d like to have just because of the name; Miss Canada. This lilac is a pink-flowered Preston cultivar that also provides pretty foliage in the fall. Miss Canada is a mid-sized shrub that grows between six to nine feet tall and five to eight feet wide. Its clusters of flowers bloom in early summer for two to three weeks and in the fall, the leaves turn a rich yellow color. This shrub thrives in Zones 3-7. 
  • Sensation. This unique cultivar boasts purple flowers edged in white for an elegant, layered look and it has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit in 2012. What’s nice about this cultivar is that it blesses you with its beauty for a full month in mid-spring. It is lightly fragrant and hardy to Zones 3-7, can grow up to 10 feet, and spreads up to 12 feet.


These are only a few of the many you can choose from, I don’t think you could make a wrong choice though except maybe with the Himalayan lilac, I haven’t personally smelled one but if it doesn’t smell like a lilac… Isn’t that why we grow them?