Q: I would appreciate your opinion on lilacs that will grow in our area. I realize that lilacs are not a very popular plant around here but I grew up in the Midwest and love them. I also would be interested in hints you may have on taking care of them.
A: Just like the scent of talcum powder can transport a parent back to when their truculent teenager was tiny, the smell of lilacs reminds Mid-Westerners of home. Under the right conditions, lilacs are virtually indestructible. Though not a very attractive shrub, the huge trusses of flowers in spring are a sight to behold!
The key element that we lack in the South is chilling hours during the winter. Most lilacs require over two thousand hours of temperatures below 45 degrees F. in order to bloom. The Atlanta area receives approximately fifteen hundred each season. The key is to find lilac selections that do not need so much chilling in the winter. The folks at Descanso Gardens in California worked for many years to find varieties that would bloom after a warm winter. Ask local nurseries if they can find for you ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Dark Knight’, ‘Miss Kim’, ‘Betsy Ross’ or ‘White Angel’ (‘Angel White’) lilac.
Look also for Syringa laciniata (Cut leaf lilac). Its flowers are not so large but it seems to bloom each year in Georgia.
Lilacs need a neutral soil pH, close to 7.0. If your garden is like most, the pH is closer to 5.0 than to 7.0. You will probably need to add lime. Call your local Extension office (1-800-ASKUGA1)) and ask them how you should bring in soil for a soil test. I found good online lilac information at The International Lilac Society and at Fox Hill Lilac Nursery.
Ann T. adds her comments: “With a little amusement I have heard you, on numerous occasions, warn gardeners that it is near impossible to cultivate lilacs in Georgia. I would tend to agree, except that I have 5(!) plants going now.
“One is a twig I started in Louisiana — It will bloom for the first time this year. (!) And after a visit to Minnesota last year, the person I stayed with was going to discard what must be a 15-plus year old plant at least, and it, too, is getting ready to put out blossoms. I will never cease to be amazed.
“While living in TN we lived in a hundred year old farmhouse, which had a bush nearly that old, which was transplanted to our new home(same city-mom was raised in the north, it was her second favorite flower) It bloomed every year till we tried to transplant the whole thing to LA– I had a twig of it I had cultivated in my Picayune, MS home for 4 years, & the year she died, it bloomed. A piece of that was potted until I moved my condo 4 years ago.
“There are lilac bushes to be bought in GA. Tell your listeners to persevere. They will not grow like weeds as in MN, but they need part sun, shelter that keep the ground cold, like next to a wall. I think that is the best way to keep them going.”