Lilacs provide the aroma of spring. They aren’t the first plant to bloom, but they bloom in Maine about the time that it begins to be warm enough to wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
And when you walk by the shrubs, the smell is intoxicating.
Lilacs are not native to Maine — they come from eastern Europe and are called French lilacs because that is where they were first hybridized, said Kristin Perry of the McLaughlin Garden in South Paris.
But lilacs surround cellar holes of abandoned farms all across Maine, so they were adopted by Mainers a long time ago and now are a major part of the family.
Lilacs go by way too quickly, but by planting different varieties, you can extend the bloom time from mid-May through July.
Syringa hyacinthiflora varieties such as “Pocahontas” will bloom a couple of weeks earlier than Syringa vulgaris, which is the common lilac in colors from white to blue. “James McFarlane” will bloom a week later than the common lilac, and the Preston lilacs — including “Minuet” and “Donald Wyman” — a week after that, about the same time as “Miss Kim,” a popular Korean lilac, Perry said.
“The last one to bloom is the Japanese tree lilac,” Perry said.
Eric Welzel, owner of Fox Hill Lilac Nursery in Brunswick, said that while lilacs are known for their fragrance, different people smell different lilacs differently.
“Someone will say, ‘Doesn’t this smell wonderful,’ and someone else will say, ‘I don’t smell anything at all,’ ” he said. But on another lilac, the reaction will be the opposite.
Perry and Welzel both say that lilacs are easy to care for — part of the reason that they are still surviving at abandoned farmhouses.
They need six hours of sun a day to bloom properly, although the plants will survive with less. They prefer neutral soil, and don’t like their roots to be wet, preferring well-drained soil. Good air circulation will reduce the possibility of disease.
“They can grow out into clay, but young lilacs have difficulty trying to get established in heavy clay soils,” Welzel said. So if you do have clay, you should dig a big hole and fill that with good topsoil and compost so the plant can get established.
Fox Hill has created its own Lilac Food, which is distributed to nurseries around the state by Allen, Sterling and Lothrop in Falmouth. It is an 8-20-16 formula enriched with lime and seaweed meal, including some slow-release nitrogen.
Lilacs do not have to be pruned, but blooming will improve if they are.
Welzel said it is probably better for the plants if lilacs are pruned early in the spring, but if you do that, you are reducing the bloom for that season. But right after blossom time is a good second best.
He said that since lilacs bloom on new wood, it is best to leave some of the suckers coming up from the ground. The pruning that is done should be done right at ground level. If cuts are made partway up the stems, you get water spouts that look like a candelabra.
Perry likes to have some old wood as well.
“Lilacs have really beautiful bark if you let it grow,” she said. “It gets all twisted and curly.”
Lilacs do need some care in midsummer, and require some watering if there is a long dry spell. If you don’t like the looks of the seed heads, you can deadhead — but it is not required for the health of the plant.
There are some new types of lilacs that can add some spice to your collection. Welzel likes “Wedgwood,” which is a vibrant blue, and “a nice later-flowering white” introduced by the University of New Hampshire called “Agnes Smith.”
Some new lilacs that are becoming available to the general public that Welzel likes include “Declaration,” a dark reddish purple from the U.S. National Arboretum; “Franks Fancy,” a dark purple from noted rhododendron breeder Weston Nursery; “Mechta,” a nice purple color from the same breeder as “Beauty of Moscow”; and “Lilac Sunday,” from the Arnold Arboretum.
“I am working on getting the really dark-dark cultivar called ‘Rajah’ once again made available to the public,” Welzel said. “It was another Weston Nurseries introduction that has lost its way and almost become a thing of the past. I’m working with Deb McCown from Knight Hollow Nursery in Wisconsin to help get this lost cultivar back.”
Welzel does not much like “Bloomerang,” the new lilac sold as a rebloomer. He said that while it does have some late-season blooms, there aren’t that many of them.
Fox Hill sells almost all of its lilacs bare root by mail order. Most are sold in the spring before the leaves come out on the plants, so it is too late to get them now. He also ships some in the fall after there has been a frost.
Welzel does sell a few potted or balled plants at the nursery, at 347 Lunt Road in Freeport, but the nursery is not always staffed, so call ahead at 529-1511. The website is lilacs.com.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth, and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: