Many transplanted Northern gardeners find themselves missing the familiar plants of their former homes. In my case, I long for the flowering lilac tree, which could be considered the crepe myrtle of Colorado. More accurately, it is a medium-to-large shrub that often can be trained into a small tree. The blooms, which occur from early spring to early summer, are not only beautiful but highly fragrant as well.
One species that is well adapted to East Texas is Syringa laciniata, the cut-leaf lilac. It will grow to eight feet, with many small clusters of fragrant lilac-colored flowers. Other possibilities are the Descanso Hybrids, which have been developed to accept mild winters and should perform exceptionally well in the Lower South. Best known is ‘Lavender Lady’; others include ‘Blue Boy,’ ‘Blue Skies,’ ‘Chiffon’ (lavender), ‘Forrest K. Smith’ (light lavender), ‘Sylvan Beauty’ (rose lavender), and ‘White Angel.’ S. patula ‘Miss Kim‘ is heat tolerant and should do well but stays small for many years. However, its blooms – purple buds opening to very fragrant icy blue flowers – are outstanding.
Lilacs prefer a well-drained, neutral-to-slightly-alkaline soil. Since most soils in East Texas tend to be acidic, a pH test would be advisable. Testing kits are available from the Smith County Extension Office. The results will tell you the proper amount of lime to apply to your planting site.
Most lilacs bloom on wood formed the previous year, so they should be pruned just after flowering. Remove the spent flower clusters, cutting back to a pair of leaves. Growth buds at that point will make flowering stems for next year.
Since the rule of thumb is that lilacs will grow but not bloom here, it may be difficult to find many plants available locally. Check any you do find carefully and buy only those species adapted for our warmer winters. Otherwise you may find yourself with a healthy but nondescript, and certainly non-flowering, shrub. Mail order catalogs offer more options, but again, consider buying only the species listed above.
Kathy Fiebig, former Smith County Master Gardener
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service