CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The blooming of the lilac bush means spring has arrived. The sweetly scented shrubs can live for centuries, and they thrive without much care or attention. Many of us remember them as part of our childhood visits to grandma's house -- and those bushes probably are beautiful today.
There's a little country cemetery near our house with a huge lilac bush right in the center. I don't think anyone has tended to it for years, and it continues to bloom nearly every spring.
The story of the lilac, according to Greek mythology, begins with a beautiful nymph named Syringa (lilac's botanical name). Captivated by her beauty, Pan, the god of the forests and fields, chased Syringa through the forest. Frightened by Pan's affections, Syringa escaped him by turning herself into an aromatic bush -- the flower we now refer to as lilac.
Highland Park in Rochester, N.Y., is called the Lilac Capital of the World, and holds an annual Lilac Festival. This year's event is May 14-23 (www.lilacfestival.com). George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew them in their gardens.
Lilacs grow best in full sun and well-drained soil, and they take two to three years to establish themselves in a new site. Soil pH may affect the plant's growth -- they like slightly acid to alkaline soil.
For abundant flowering, cut off all spent blossoms each year and prune the flowering stem back to a set of leaves to prevent seeds forming. This puts all of the energy into next year's flowers, not the seeds. A bad flowering year might follow a good one if you don't do this.
Many lilacs can reach heights of 30 feet without regular pruning. To control legginess, remove about one-third of the oldest stems at ground level using clippers each year for three years. This encourages the growth of strong new stems from the base. Cut away shoots growing near the ground that may be sprouting from the main trunk. To improve air circulation or to allow more light to filter through, trimming lilacs within the inner branches may be necessary.
If lilac bushes are already too large, pruning the entire bush or tree to about 6 or 8 inches off the ground may be necessary. Keep in mind that you will have to wait for flowers to return, as it takes about three years for them to develop once the entire shrub has been cut.
If you are pruning lilac trees or shrubs to within inches of the ground, do it in early spring. New shoots will develop during the regular growing season as long as there are a few healthy shoots left.