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2022 is the 'year of the lilac,' so let's get to know more about the popular shrub

"Growing Together" columnist Don Kinzler says

Hedge with white and purple lilac in summer sunlight
There's a reason why lilacs have been so popular over the years.
Binnerstam / Getty Images / iStockphoto
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FARGO — Count the day lost you don’t learn something new, as the old saying goes, and today’s a good day because I learned something new. I didn’t know lilacs are edible.

Fresh, fragrant lilac flowers can be used in recipes to flavor ice cream, custard, cookies, cake, lemonade and a wide assortment of delicacies. Lilac blossoms will be especially welcome this spring after the region’s winter of eternity, and I’ll be sure to taste-test some when they bloom.

Flavor isn’t the reason, though, that the National Garden Bureau declared 2022 the "Year of the Lilac." The shrub received the distinction because “Lilacs are among the most carefree spring-flowering, multi-stemmed shrubs, well-loved for their toughness, reliability and fragrance,” as described by the Bureau.

In the Upper Midwest, the lilac needs no introduction. No homestead in pioneer days was complete without lilacs in the yard, and many can still be seen, often outlasting both buildings and residents.

Their fragrance usually takes our memory back to some previous place and time, but lilacs are more than nostalgia. These winter-tough shrubs are enjoying a well-deserved resurgence in popularity.

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Branch of lilac flowers
Though they're not native to the Upper Midwest, lilacs do well here.
Roxana_ro / Getty Images / iStockphoto

Lilacs aren’t native to North America, but they thrive in the Upper Midwest, having originated in similar climates in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Colonists brought them to America in the 1600s and Presidents Washington and Jefferson both had lilacs in their landscapes.

When most of us think lilacs, we picture the old-fashioned lavender kind, but there are many other types, shapes and sizes. The assortment provides great options for any landscape. Lilacs are well-adapted and winter-hardy for the entire Upper Midwest.

Types

  • Common Lilac, Syringa vulgaris: The old-fashioned, highly fragrant lilac, blooming in either lavender or white, grows to a height of 12 to 16 feet. The generous suckers produced at the lilac’s base are an advantage if a wide, screening-type planting is desired.
  • Hybrids of Common Lilac: Often termed French hybrids, there are over 600 cultivars in a variety of color shades and flower variations. Most reach a height of around 8 to 12 feet, and usually don’t produce spreading suckers like the common lilac parent.
  • Preston Canadian Hybrids: Miss Canada is the most popular cultivar, blooming rosy pink about two weeks later than common lilacs, with a non-suckering habit.
  • Japanese Tree Lilac: A tree-type lilac with either a single trunk or multiple stems, the large clusters of creamy white flowers bloom in late June. Developed by North Dakota State University, the cultivar Summer Flare is a beautiful 30-foot-high tree perfect for yards, boulevards and public grounds.
  • Dwarf Korean Lilac: Growing 6 to 8 feet high and wide, lavender flowers are formed in small clusters that attract butterflies. They’re sometimes grown on a “standard,” which forms a rounded shrub atop a single trunk growing to about 8 feet high. Dwarf Korean Lilac often produces a few blooms in late summer.
  • Small Lilacs: Growing 3 to 6 feet high, depending on the cultivar, these small-stature lilacs fit well into smaller landscapes. Included are cultivars like Baby Kim, Little Lady, Pearl Potion, Pinktini, Sugar Plum Fairy and Tinkerbelle.
  • Reblooming Lilacs: Cultivars that bloom heavily in spring with repeat flowering in late summer include Bloomerang Dark Purple, Bloomerang Pink Perfume and Bloomerang Dwarf Purple. Repeat bloom isn’t always assured on these shrubs, which grow 4 to 6 feet high, but these newer cultivars rebloom more reliably than older cultivars touted as repeat bloomers.

Growing tips

  • Lilacs grow best in locations that receive all-day sunshine, and the bloom is diminished if they’re shaded more than a few hours per day.
  • Lilacs need good drainage and can die if planted in a low-lying area that doesn’t shed water quickly enough after rain or stays too wet in spring after the snow melts.
  • If planting lilacs in a lawn area, keep grass away by mulching a 3-foot diameter circle to increase the lilac’s growth rate. Lawngrass encroaching a lilac will diminish its growth.
  • Fertilize lilacs in May with granular 10-10-10 fertilizer or a water-soluble type. Organic forms can also be applied.
  • Pruning off spent flower heads after they fade can help lilacs set more flowers for next year.
  • Patience is required, because it does take several growing seasons for a newly planted lilac to root, establish and develop height.
  • Patience is rewarded because lilacs can live for a century or two.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.

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