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Pruning, History and Varieties of French Lilacs

Beauty of Moscow light pink and white lilac variety fragrant white lilac

History of Lilacs

French or common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) bring a rustic elegance to the garden. These tough and long lived plants were originally native to southeastern Europe but have been widely cultivated throughout Europe since the 1500s. They were introduced to North America during the 1600s by colonial settlers. In fact, lilac bushes were planted throughout the American Southwest by Spanish explorers and missionaries. In days long before weather apps and university extension services, the Spanish looked to lilacs to help time the planting of their agricultural crops, as lilac flowering usually correlates with the last days of frost.   

Hundreds of lilac cultivars have been developed over the years. However, many of the cultivars we know and love today were bred in France during the 19th century. This is why we often call them the “French Hybrids.” The main ornamental feature of the numerous cultivars, are their highly fragrant clusters of showy flowers that bloom late spring (May in most regions) in hues of purple, white, rose, pink and magenta.    

When to Prune Lilacs

Lilacs bloom on the growing tips of last year’s growth, so hold off on pruning your plants until after they have flowered. Once you are ready to prune, you can remove the spent flowers and shape the shrubs as needed. However, finish your pruning by mid-summer so that you don’t remove the forming flower buds for next year.

French Lilac Varieties

Here are three of our favorite varieties and a short history on each. On average, these lilacs will grow 10 to 12 feet tall and wide and form a multi-stem deciduous shrub that will freely sucker if allowed. To create a real show stopper in spring, plant in an area that receives at least six hours of sun with an understory of bulbs like tulips and daffodils and early flowering perennials like basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis) and creeping phlox (Phlox subulata).

‘President Grevy’

President Grevy lilac was named after the French president Jules Grevy who was in office from 1879-1887. He is remembered as the first real president of France since his predecessors were monarchists who tried to restore the monarchy after its fall. The cultivar offers soft blue, almost Wedgewood-like flowers, that are sweetly fragrant.


‘Beauty of Moscow’

Beauty of Moscow is April’s favorite lilac and was actually bred in Russia, not France. The flowers and buds take on a pale pink and white cast with an intense fragrance upon opening.

‘Charles Joly’

Charles Joly was introduced in 1896. The forming buds are deep purple that open to clusters of double magenta flowers. The fragrance is also heavenly!

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