But not for me

Photo by Edmund Cardoni

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.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I have fond memories of lilacs from growing up in western NY, but now that I live in Washington, DC all the lilacs I see are covered with mildew by mid-summer.

  2. As a little girl in Nebraska, I would walk to school along the high school foot ball field that was surrounded by lilac bushes. My teachers were showered with bouquets of them that I broke off on my way.
    Here in central CA. they are stingy bloomers and reward me with mildew all summer long. I shovel pruned them about 3 years ago and they still insist on sending up suckers.

  3. My next door neighbor also has a Lilac that has not bloomed in several years, the reason though is that her mow and blow guy prunes it down to little stubs in January, thereby removing the blooming wood. They cannot be convinced that the time to prune (if needed at all) is directly after the blooms fade even though mine can be seen blooming away every year. You should see what they do to Loropetalums.

    • Yikes! There is definitely a pruning madness among many US gardeners. “When do i cut it back?” is the most frequently asked question.

  4. I used to love lilacs, but now I’m meh about them. The only one in my yard was an old fashioned one that mildewed in August. It’s been whacked to the ground in anticipation of its replacement, a ‘Perfect Purple’ flowering crab.

  5. They do well here in Kansas; and as long as you select varieties with a little resistance, mildew is not generally a problem. The biggest issue is that many years their bloom time coincides with a late snow or ice storm, ruining the S. vulgaris hybrids.

    My favorites are the recent National Arboretum releases; ‘Betsy Ross’ is an okay white, ‘Declaration’ is a deep purple to die for!

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