What is a Lilac?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A lilac is a shrub or tree in the genus Syringa, native to Eastern Europe and the temperate regions of Western Asia. Lilacs are immensely popular in gardens all over the world, and some cultures have specific associations with these aromatic, brief-blooming flowers. Many garden supply stores in temperate zones carry lilacs, often with several cultivars on offer, and it is also possible to order lilacs directly through nurseries which specialize in these trees and shrubs. With over 200 named lilac cultivars to choose from, gardeners have a great deal to work with.

A vase of lilacs.
A vase of lilacs.

Lilacs are deciduous, producing deep green, simple leaves in the spring which eventually change color and drop off in the fall. Their flowers may be white to purple, with a particularly distinctive purple shade being known as “lilac.” Lilacs usually produce cone-shaped clusters of flowers which may appear in the late spring or midsummer, depending on the region and the cultivar, and the flowers often fade quickly.

Lilac flowers bloom in the spring, are sweet smelling and may attract butterflies.
Lilac flowers bloom in the spring, are sweet smelling and may attract butterflies.

The aroma of lilacs is very strong and quite memorable. These plants like sunny spots in the garden with lots of room to spread and slightly alkaline soil. The color of the flowers can vary slightly, depending on the chemical composition of the soil and the region, which is something to be aware of when purchasing lilac cultivars from a nursery. Water requirements for lilacs vary, depending on the climate, with the plants preferring moist, but not wet, soil.

Caring for lilacs is quite simple, because they do not like to be pruned. Lilacs produce flowers on old wood, and if a lilac is pruned, it will put out a lot of new green growth, but no flowers. As a result, gardeners prune lilacs sparingly, and usually immediately after the plant has flowered, to give it a chance to recover before the following year. As a result of lack of pruning, lilacs tend to develop a rakishly shaggy appearance which some gardeners find very pleasant. This sprawling growth habit also makes lots of room for lilacs very important.

Some gardeners refer to the butterfly bush in the genus Buddleja as a lilac or “summer lilac.” Although butterfly bushes look very similar to lilacs, they are not quite as aromatic, and they benefit from pruning, preferring to be substantially cut back at the end of the growing season so that they can put out new growth in the following year. Butterfly bushes also have very different foliage which makes them easy to identify.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have a garden composed entirely of purple flowers. Lilac bushes grow in front of a trellis that holds a purple climbing rose. I saved the seed from my friend’s purple zinnias last year to ensure that they would be the correct color to fit into my garden. I also found a purple variety of daylily to plant beside the lilacs.

While they are in bloom, the lilacs are the star of the purple garden. Though it has plenty of blooms to look full and healthy without them, they truly make it look magical while they last. They smell better than anything else planted there, and I always seat my guests in the garden during lilac season.


My sister and her husband met beside a lilac bush in a park. She said she will always associate that wonderful smell with him because of this.

Lilac has become the official flower of their relationship. When they got married, she had the church decorated in fresh lilacs, which were also in her bouquet, so the building smelled like the place where they met. Her bridesmaids wore lilac gowns, and her wedding colors were lilac and sea-green.

For their first anniversary, her husband got her a bouquet of lilacs. When they bought their first home, they planted several lilac bushes in the yard.


My grandmother grows lilacs in her yard, and they are so beautiful. The blooms remind me of tiny dogwood blossoms because of their shape.

The heart-shaped leaves are such a saturated green, and this goes perfectly with the purple flowers. Some of the teeny blossoms are lighter than others, but they all are variations of purple.

I own some lilac perfume that smells so much like these flowers. I wear it after the blooms fade so that I can keep that wonderful aroma with me. It reminds me of my childhood and being outside with my grandmother.


@julies - I know what you mean about the lilacs only being in bloom for a short time. While I love the old fashioned trees, I bought some dwarf lilac bushes that continue to bloom throughout the summer.

They bloom most profusely in early spring, but will continue to produce blossoms intermittently through the entire summer.

It is nice to be able to enjoy them more than just once in the spring, but I don't think their fragrance is as strong as those on the older, mature trees.


To me, lilacs are one of the first signs of spring. In my area they are one of the earliest bloomers and I love to have a bouquet of fresh lilacs in my house.

I have several old fashioned lilac trees on my property. Most of them are lavender and a deep purple, but a few of them are also white.

I have never worried much about growing lilacs, because these trees were here when we bought the place and continue to bloom every spring.

The light, floral scent of these flowers is one of my favorite scents. They just don't stay in bloom long enough and I am always sad when I don't have any more fresh lilac flowers.

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