Lilacs might not be the perfect plant, but they’re an undeniable delight

Welcome to the lilac season. For the next month or so Syringa vulgaris will grab attention as we travel around, entice us on our walks and delight us in vases. Can things get any better?

Lilacs are a favorite shrub in many parts of the world and I rank Alaska near the top of that list. Here, these shrubs provide early blooms that continue to thrill for a period of up to six weeks as different varieties chime in. And, because they are so darn easy to plant and grow, so stone hardy and fragrant, almost all yards have at least one.

A lot of shrubs we simply see and take for granted: not lilacs. For some lilacs evoke memories because we grew up with them and they remind us of family and familiar things. I can’t look at a lilac without thinking about my grandfather who hybridized them — and of my grandmother, who therefore had to cut thousands of lilac flowers for displays.

For those who were raised where it was too warm to grow lilacs, they quickly become a wonderful addition to you color palate of flowers and their fragrance, fresh as it were, is much grander than any lilac scent you may have been exposed to. And there aren’t many other shrubs that can get bigger than lilacs and yet still bloom year in and year out.

The perfect plant? The only thing missing is the ability to eat them. Oops, people do! In fact, lilac blossoms are used by cooks because of their nectar to produce all manner things from wines to cookies. There are lots of easy recipes on the internet worth exploring.

For me, fragrance alone is enough reason to grow lilacs. It is at its peak during sunny days which must be the reason yellow swallowtails flutter about these bushes collecting nectar. These butterflies’ invariable presence is another reason to grow lilacs in your yard.

Lilacs can live a hundred years and more. They can get 20, even 30 feet tall and really spread out. If you plant some, and surely you should, make sure you think ahead. They grow quickly, up as well as out.


I get questions about lilacs every year. The most prevalent, you can guess, is why they didn’t produce blossoms. Invariably the answer is one of two things related to the formation of buds for next year’s flowers. This occurs within six weeks of this year’s.

So, no flowers? Either the flower buds were cut off while pruning after bud formation or, and more likely, moose ate the buds. Moose love lilac buds. They can’t get the ones on the tops of very tall bushes however, which is why many lilacs only bear flowers at their tops.

Anchorage lilacs were hit by a leaf miner a few years back when we had a really warm summer. The problem, has abated over the years, probably because of natural predators who must have had a field day. I haven’t seen any signs of the miners, but let me know if you do!

So, the bottom line is lilacs are great. They can serve as terrific landscape specimens useful for hedging, summer privacy and just plain display. They are easy to plant, requiring nothing but a shallow hole and water. There are many varieties and colors with at least one that will suit your particular needs.

What are you waiting for?

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Picnic in the Garden: Thursday evenings in June, July, and August! 6-8 p.m. Special catered picnics by different local bistros in the loveliest of garden settings, at The Alaska Botanical Garden. You must make reservations.

Climbers and viners: Provide support

Start seeds outdoors: Second crop of broccoli, kale, cabbage, lettuces? Plant seeds now, outdoors either in the ground or in flats.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.