Some plants are just untouchable, iconic. Lilacs are among those plants. They’re immortalized in poetry, like “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Or glorious in cities, as in Rochester’s lilac festival or New York’s Cloisters.
Yet, I removed two large lilacs from my property within two years of moving in, and I was reminded why yesterday when two of my work colleagues came to me with their lilac problems. (I have a totally undeserved reputation as the gardening question go-to in the office.) One told me she’d had a lilac that had never bloomed in maybe 10 years. The other wondered why her lilac had bloomed profusely some years and this year she had maybe one or two blooms at most.
For the one whose had never bloomed, I have only one solution—get rid of it. Ten years is way too long to wait for any plant. But to both of them, I confessed that I was not a big lilac fan, at least for my garden. They really need full sun, which is why I could never figure out why two of them had been planted in an east-facing, tree-shaded position by the previous owners. They were lanky and sad. I now have the type of plants that work well for that position, including a few hydrangeas, which I far prefer as hard-working summer shrubs.
Lilacs bloom gloriously for a week or so and then revert to undistinguished small-leafed shrubs for the rest of the summer and fall. There isn’t too much space for that in a small garden like mine. They make more sense in a big country or suburban garden. Writer Andrew Keys recommends Korean Spice Viburnum as a possible substitute that provides the scent, and doesn’t need as much sun. I wouldn’t know about that plant, but I love the viburnums I do have.
Sometimes I yearn for the romance and fragrance of lilacs. Luckily, there’s a festival an hour down the road. And my friends’ lilacs, like the one above.