The Most Popular Lilac Varieties

Lilacs are undeniably beautiful and aromatic flowers, and, like snowflakes, each variety has its own interesting characteristics

Credit: Pernilla Bergdahl / GAP Photos

No matter which variety of lilac you choose, it’s certain the flowers will be beautiful

All lilacs have a haunting fragrance and alluring appearance, but each variety has its own personality

Beloved by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds as well as humans, lilacs have a special place in the spring garden. They may not bloom for long, but their luxuriant trusses of flowers and heady fragrance set lilacs firmly among the most romantic of shrubs.

The most popular varieties are the French lilacs (Syringa vulgaris), which flower in May. These include the lovely double-flowered ‘Madame Lemoine’, whose cream buds open to pure white, and rich fuchsia-purple ‘Congo’, now more than a century old and still one of the most dependable. Both are heavily scented.

For the bluest lilacs, look for single-flowered ‘President Lincoln’ or double ‘President Grevy’. If yellow is your colour, ‘Primrose’ might appeal to you with its petals of soft butter and cream. However, it is not as scented as the more traditional shades.

A popular and unusual member of the group is ‘Katherine Havemeyer’, whose double lavender flowers open to pinkish-mauve and fade to pale violet creating a stunning three-toned effect. For even more drama, ‘Sensation’ lives up to its name with single purple flowers crisply edged in white. Both are exceptionally fragrant.

Canadian Lilac Hybrids

Although lilacs need cold weather to set their buds, late frosts can sometimes turn the flowers brown just as they are about to open. Fortunately, there’s a whole range of hardy Canadian hybrids that avoid some of the risk by flowering at least two weeks later than the French favourites.

Three varieties of lilacs

A few lilac varieties (from left): syringa patula ‘Miss Kim,’ syringa vulgaris ‘Congo,’ and syringa x josiflexa (Images: GAP Photos)

We have Isabella Preston, Canada’s first woman hybridist to thank for that. Two of her introductions have received the prestigious award of merit from the Royal Horticultural Society: ‘Bellicent’ is a tall shrub (up to 4 m) with huge, loose trusses of clear baby-pink flowers and a sugary cinnamon scent. ‘Elinor’ has rich purple buds that open to paler flowers. They start blooming at the end of May and continue through June.

On average all the above lilacs will grow 3 to 4 m high and 3 m wide. For smaller gardens, a better choice might be one of the little-leaf or Asian lilacs. Less than half the size of their cousins, they are also hardier and healthier. Their short, dense heads are not quite as showy but they are just as fragrant.

‘Miss Kim’ has lavender-blue flowers with a spicy scent and leaves that turn purple in fall. ‘Palibin’ is particularly compact, making a neat, rounded shrub about 1.5 metres in diameter. Its flowers are lilac-pink.

Recently, research has concentrated on extending the bloom time and reducing the size of new introductions. Strong pink ‘Tinkerbelle’ and lavender-pink ‘Josee’ are dwarf varieties that will not exceed 2 metres. In ideal conditions, both will produce a sprinkling of later flowers. ‘Bloomerang’ is shorter still and claims to be the first repeat-blooming lilac.

Originally published in BC Home & Garden magazine. For regular updates, subscribe to our free Home and Garden e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the magazine.