Lilacs come in many varieties, perfect for any landscaping theme

Every year and without fail, the lilacs bloom to reassure us that summer is coming. A fragrant flower, New Hampshire residents can enjoy them for only a couple weeks. The robust flower historically symbolizes love, and can be found growing in abundance along our high ways, country roads and swaying with the wind in our yards.

It isn’t a surprise that the lovely lilac is our state flower, but it wasn’t the only choice. Furthermore, the process was extremely time consuming, and it caused quite the controversy.

According to The University of New Hampshire’s The Way We Were: A Collection of UNH Anecdotes, “Dr. Ormond R. Butler served as head of the botany department from 1912 until his death in 1940. In 1919, his expertise was called upon to help settle a debate that was then raging in the New Hampshire Legislature. The issue on the table was which flower was most deserving of the title of state flower. Rep. Charles B. Drake first introduced a bill to name the lilac New Hampshire’s state flower on Jan. 9, 1919. Other legislators then filed bills and amendments promoting the apple blossom, purple aster, wood lily, Mayflower, goldenrod, wild pasture rose, evening primrose and buttercup as the state flower. A long and lively debate followed, regarding the relative merits of each flower. The apple blossom was a popular choice for many, but it was the prohibition era and some people regarded the apple blossom as a symbol of hard cider. Others took issue with the buttercup, since the color yellow was often equated with cowardice.”

After much discussion, legislators agreed to accept the decisions of the state’s leading botanists, Professor Arthur Chivers of Dartmouth College and Professor Butler of the New Hampshire College in Durham.

“Unfortunately, the two men found they could not agree on the same flower. Chivers favored the lilac, while Butler championed the evening primrose. A vote was taken between the lilac and the primrose. The lilac won and was adopted as the state flower on March 28, 1919,” according to The Way We Were: A Collection of UNH Anecdotes.

Nancy Deol, Master Gardener volunteer at the UNH Cooperative Extension, said lilacs have many wonderful qualities.

“The lilac is adaptable to a wide variety of soils with pH that ranges from 5.5-8.0, and hardy to USDA Zone 2. It can be used as a wind breaking shrub for farms and also is great for highway beautification. Their flowers are quite fragrant and song birds love to nest within lilacs. There are hundreds of different cultivars of lilacs, and one for everyone’s taste. Another use for lilacs is to create flower essences for wellness, which is something those who enjoy wild crafting have done for a long time.” Deol said.

“I would definitely recommend a lilac, or a few of them, if you have the space and especially if you enjoy fragrant landscape plants as well as song birds. If you tend to have a wind yard, plant lilacs to help mute the wind gusts. They are also lovely for living walls or fences for privacy, although it would take some time for them to grow to that level if you purchase young plants. They remain green throughout the season, after the blooms fade, so that is another reason to love the lilac.” Deol noted.

Bob Smith, of Morin’s Landscaping Inc. in Hollis, said he has been using various lilac cultivars in their landscape installations since 1978.

“We typically plant lilacs in groupings to create visual impact, but the lilac can also be used as a featured specimen in the landscape or garden. Lilacs are wonderfully fragrant, extremely cold hardy and a great choice for the New Hampshire landscape,” Smith said.

“There are over a thousand varieties of lilac with a range of flower colors to choose from. Various hybrids produce single or double blooms and offer varying degrees of fragrance in a rainbow of colors, from purples, rich reds, magentas, bluesto pinks, whites, mauve and creamy yellow. Almost anyone who lives in New England has experienced the sweet smell of lilacs in May. For the fragrance alone, every landscape should include lilacs,” Smith added.

Smith said there are several lilacs for the perfect space or focal point.

“Common Lilacs can grow to be quite large at 15 feet or more. Smaller varieties of lilacs offer options for landscapes with limited space,” Smith said.

“The Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’) grows to about 4- to 5-feet tall and wide at maturity with a nice fragrant flower and can also be planted as a hedge. The Miss Kim Lilac (Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’), commonly called the Manchurian Lilac, will grow to about 8 to 10-feet by 6 to 8-feet wide. This variety blooms a little later than other lilacs and has an added benefit of nice burgundy leaf color in the fall. Other lilac cultivars are available with variegated flower colors, earlier or later blooming times, and different sizes at maturity. Lilacs bloom on buds that form on ‘old’ wood growth from the previous season. If pruning is needed, lilacs should be pruned right after flowering in the spring.”

Smith explained there are reblooming varieties such as “Bloomerang” flower in the spring and then provide a second, but lighter flowering again later in the season. Bloomerang lilacs rebloom on new growth, and can benefit from light pruning and fertilizing after the first flowering.

There also are lilac trees for the garden.

“We also plant tree lilacs (Syringa reticulata),” Smith said. “These small trees can reach a height of 20 to 30 feet, have dark green leaves and produce spectacular clusters of creamy-white flowers in early summer. The cherry-brown colored bark dotted with white lenticels provides added interest in the landscape.”

Though hardy, lilacs grow best and flower more profusely in a sunny location.

“Lilacs like neutral or slightly sweet, well-drained soil,” Smith said. “Soil in New Hampshire is typically acidic, so lime may be needed to adjust soil pH. If you are concerned about your soil, you can get a soil test. Generally speaking, lilacs don’t need a lot of fertilization. In order to promote blooming, you can fertilize lilacs with a high phosphorous formula in early spring.”

Smith recommends avoiding high-nitrogen fertilizers, because if lilacs get too much nitrogen, the plant will have plenty of green leaves, but they won’t produce many flowers.

“Planting lilacs in an area with good air flow reduces the possibility of mildew during humid weather for susceptible varieties.” Smith said.

Residents who are looking to plant an established lilac for their yard can find several types at Bedford Fields nursery and greenhouse in Bedford.

Bill Zeolie, the owner, takes pride in having an impressive selection of plants, garden design, planting and delivery services.

“The lilac, with its springtime-scented flowers in purple, blue, white and pink is an all-time favorite garden shrub. Common lilacs are best used as a specimen or border in an open space allowing them to grow properly. Today, there are many lilac varieties that are smaller and more manageable for the landscape,” Zeolie said.

For those who love gardening and flowers, the lilac would make a lasting gift for the new homeowner or for Mother’s Day. Hint, hint.

For more information on Morin’s Landscaping Inc., visit morinslandscaping.com. For more educational information on gardening, visit extension.unh.edu.

Susanna Hargreaves is a mother of three enchanting children, an educator, and writer from New Hampshire. For more information, visit letmetellyourstory.com.