Dwarf Lilacs

by Jan Cashman

Everyone loves the color and fragrance of lilacs in the spring.   They are truly the favorite shrub for northern climates because of their fragrant flowers in May and June and their cold hardiness.  Here are a few interesting facts about lilacs:

  • Lilac’s genus, Syringa, is taken from the word Syrinx, meaning a hollow tube or pipe, because lilac’s stems were easily hollowed out to make reed pipes or flutes.
  • The common name lilac is from the Persian girls’ name Lila, meaning evening (because of their purple color.)
  • Lilacs are native to Europe and Asia.
  • Lilacs were brought to the United States in the 1750’s by settlers from France and Holland.   George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both had them in their gardens.
  • By planting different varieties of lilacs, you can have lilac blooms for up to 6 weeks.
  • Lilacs bushes can live for hundreds of years.
  • Rochester, New York, has a lilac festival, as does Spokane, Washington.  Lilacs are the state flower of New Hampshire.
  • There are over 2000 varieties of lilacs.  France pioneered hybridizing lilacs, hence the name French hybrid lilacs.

Most lilacs grow tall, up to 12 to 15 feet.   Once they get that tall, they often have few leaves at their base and can become out of scale in the landscape, especially in a small yard.    But there are a few lilacs that stay compact without a lot of pruning and make great plants for any size landscape:

Miss Kim (Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’), one of the best dwarf lilacs, was first grown from a seed collected by an American horticulturist stationed in Korea in 1947.   Miss Kim’s mature height is 6-7′ and width is 5-6′.   Its pale lilac-colored flowers are extremely fragrant.    Late-blooming Miss Kim is one of the few lilacs whose leaves turn reddish in the fall.  It is also one of the few that grows well in the South.

Minuet lilac (Syringa x prestoniae ‘Minuet’) was introduced in 1972 by Dr. Cumming, a Canadian.  Plant breeders in Canada have crossed late-blooming lilacs to create a cold-hardy series called Preston hybrids which bloom about two weeks later than common lilacs.  Minuet is the smallest of these, growing to only 6 feet in height and 5 foot spread.  It has large, dark green leaves and is a denser shrub than most lilacs.  Minuet’s light purple flower buds open to single, soft white-pink blooms.

Truly one of the best all-around shrubs for our climate, Dwarf Korean (Syringa meyeri ‘Palabin’) is the most compact of the hardy lilacs.  It is named after Frank Meyer who discovered it in a garden in Beijing, China, in 1909 and sent cuttings home to the United States.  It has small leaves and blooms profusely at an early age with small pale lilac-colored, heavily scented flowers.  If dwarf Korean lilacs’ flowers are dead-headed after they bloom, they will sometimes rebloom in the fall.

These three dwarf lilacs are not as susceptible to powdery mildew and bacterial blight as are other lilacs.  All lilacs can be grown in most any soil type.  Plant them in full sun for the most blooms.   The best time to prune lilacs is after they bloom.  But don’t prune too heavily or you might not get blooms next year.

Consider planting a Miss Kim, Minuet, or Dwarf Korean lilac. They won’t outgrow their space but will still give you the beauty and fragrance of lilacs in the spring.