Growing Lilac (Syringea vulgaris) in Southern California

Question from Rachel:
First things first: Pat, I asked you a question about fruit trees a while ago, and you sent the most thoughtful, detailed message with a host of helpful suggestions, including a recommendation for Bearss lime trees. I managed to find one–Bearss were everywhere, but only dwarf varieties, so finding a full-sized tree took some time. It is a phenomenal tree: insanely productive and very sweet limes. Thank you!

On to the lilac tree/bush: I bought a white lilac plant a few years ago, and at the time it was exploding in flowers. I planted it in a corner of my garden where it flourished for 2 years (very green and leafy) but it never created a single blossom. I did some online research and read that in my zone (23) lilacs should do quite well, but that they needed a lot of sun. So I moved the lilac to the center of the backyard. It has not done well. Many of the leaves are looking crispy and burnt at the ends, and while the plant is covered in little green buds, they frequently turn brown and flake away. Am I not watering enough? Should I move the lilac back into the shade? Or should I forgo lilacs altogether?

Answer from Pat:
Many folks who grew up in cool-season climates and moved to Southern California wish they could grow lilac (Syringea vulgaris) here. If one chooses a low-chill variety, such as ‘Lavender Lady’ or ‘Alba’ that are adapted to growing in a Mediterranean climate, it is possible to grow lilac successfully and bring it into bloom in Southern California, but you need to live in Zone 22 (the Los Angeles Basin is Zone 22) or in a zone of even colder winter temperatures than that, such as Zone 21. Lilac blooms beautifully in Julian, for example, and is very fragrant there. In hot interior climates it’s better to grow lilac in part shade and not full sun, so I don’t think sun or shade was the cause of your lilac not blooming. I think it was temperature. Lilac is actually pretty well adapted to our soil since it prefers soil that is slightly alkaline and if you have acid soil you should add a little Dolomitic lime to it to make it sweeter. Lilac also needs moist soil and regular irrigation. It is not drought-resistant.

One must cut lilac back after bloom or pick all the blooms with long stems on them leaving some buds for new growth in order to create more blooming wood for the following year. “Prune after bloom never before” is the rule with lilac. (If you have a gardener who regularly prunes everything in sight that’s why your plant didn’t bloom because he cut off all the blooming wood.) However, the main reason eastern lilac fails to bloom in mild frost-free climates is because the plants didn’t get enough winter chill. You live in Zone 23 which is a mild coastal zone good for avocados your garden simply does not have enough winter chill to successfully make lilac bloom, except in a cold pocket, or microclimate if you have such a spot. One of my daughters lives in Zone 23 and had three lovely lilacs in her garden. They bloomed for 3 years but where not very fragrant, then stopped blooming last year and this year they died. I do not consider this a good recommendation for a plant to grow here in Southern California.

Even when lilac does bloom the fragrance is not as good as if it were growing in a climate with adequate winter chill. Even without winter chill some folks have had success forcing their plants to bloom by withholding water in fall. (Usually lilacs need regular irrigation, but fall drought can force lavender to make buds for spring bloom.) Because of all these difficulties I don’t recommend lilac as a wise choice for local gardens unless you live in a place like the San Gabriel Valley or Ramona where winter frosts are a common occurrence.

I suggest you look around for something to grow that will please you as much or more than lilac. My suggestion is to build a pergola this fall and plant Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis ‘Cooke’s Special’) bare root in January. Feed it, water it well for the first three years, and prune and train it carefully as I describe in my book. Every February and March, you will have masses of purple bloom (almost the same shade and shape as lilac) fragrance to die for, and eventually armloads of woody boughs covered with blooms to bring into the house. Once established and trained, wisteria is very drought-resistant. It also attracts birds.

Thank you so much for telling me about your prolific ‘Bearss’ lime tree. Delighted to know my advice helped.

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  1. Gabriela Romero

    I live in the south of Calexico,California (just in the border with Mexico)I think is zone 13, a few months ago I planted a Lilac California Rose but is not growing much. This spring started to have new leaves and new plants come from around the older ones. What do you think I need to do?

    • The Descanso hybrid lilac ‘California Rose’ is a pink variety adapted to growing in Mediterranean climates—Sunset Zones 18-22. This does not include the Southwest desert climate in which you live. If it is not growing well, this is the main reason. There is no variety of lilac that is strongly recommended for Zone 13. However, common lilac (S. vulgaris) can be grown there, though with difficulty. Also, growing lilacs takes some patience.

      Here is my advice to you: Was your plant grafted? Or is it on its own roots? If you do not know, find out!—(Look at the original plant to find the graft and also look at the label or inquire from the nursery where you got it.) If grafted, those growths coming from the ground may be coming from below the graft and sapping its energy. Grafted varieties often make a lot of suckers. If NOT grafted, let them grow! But if your plant was grafted, be sure to cut out those suckers now IF they are coming from below the graft because they are sapping the strength of your ‘California Rose’ variety and will overwhelm it and eventually kill it. Lilac plants may not bloom for two to five years. Lilacs need little fertilizer, but where you live there may be nothing in the soil, so give it a feeding now with organic fertilizer high in phosphorus for bloom. (Overfeeding lilac with nitrogen can make the plant grow instead of blooming.) I hope you added compost to the ground when you planted your lilac, but now you could mulch on top with compost. Beginning now in spring and continuing through summer keep the plant adequately watered, especially during hot weather, but make sure drainage is good. Then let the plant dry out in fall (October, November, and December) to encourage dormancy. Mainly we gardeners need to admit to ourselves that not all plants will grow well in all places.

  2. When will the lilacs bloom this year in Julian?

    • Usually lilac’s bloom in Julian in mid-April. I was up there once with friends and we stopped to photograph a large lilac bush. We asked permission first from the owner of the house, an elderly woman who was sitting on her porch. “Would you like some?” she asked. “If so, cut them with long enough stems and hammer the stems when you get home before putting them into water. I have to cut them or they don’t bloom the following year, and I can’t keep up with it any more. So help yourself and take all you want!” My friend had come armed with clippers so she must have had a similar experience before.

  3. Hello, Im from the east coast. A lovely town called Plymouth, Ma. Our house was built in 1870. We had beautiful lilacs. We now live in Fallbrook, Ca. and would love to grow them. Do you think we’ll have Much Appreciation!

    • Lilacs that are adapted to living in Southern California do well in Fallbrook. As a start try ‘Lavender Lady’.

  4. hello i have a question
    my Best friend its getting married in november and she loves lilac its her favorite flower is there anywhere in the US that i may find some lilac ??
    thank you

    • Most lilac shrubs bloom only in spring. However, “Proven Winners” has developed a new “day-length neutral” lilac that blooms from spring to fall. It could be that an enterprising flower-grower is growing this new lilac for cut flowers. If so you might be able to purchase lilac as a cut flower in November. Before the development of the “day-neutral” lilac plants mentioned above, no lilac was available in the northern Hemisphere during autumn unless it was grown inside a “Climatron”, a building that simulates climates at any time of year required. In Holland bulbs such as tulips are brought into bloom at any time of year inside a Climatron and the flowers are sold to the cut-flower industry. Lilac would not be economically viable to grow this way since there would be no flowers during winter. The only other way that you might be able to find lilac in fall instead of spring would be if it were shipped from South America. In South America November is the same as February here. However, lilac usually blooms in April with the earliest blooms possible in March and then only if the weather is warm enough in March.

  5. Hi I live in Diamond Bar & would love to have Lilacs in my garden. I used to have about 8 bushes in my Washington Syate home & am missing it here. Will they grow in my area & if so what should I get? Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • Your local nursery in Diamond Bar should be able to provide you with Descanso Hybrid lilac trees that are adapted to growing in mild climates such as we have here in Southern California. Varieties to look for include ‘Lavender Lady’; ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Blue Boy’,which are both blue; ‘Chiffon’, which is lavender and ‘Forrest K. Smith’—light lavender; ‘Sylvan Beauty’, which is rose lavender; and ‘White Angel’, which obviously is white. All these thrive in Sunset zones 18 to 22 and thus should grow well in Diamond Bar, given good care.

  6. I live in Simi Valley CA (not sure what zone that is) and i would like to put lilacs behind our pool area? Will they grow there (sun) and if so what kind???

    • The Simi Valley is in Sunset Zone 18, which is classified as an interior climate, more influenced by the continental air mass than by the ocean. Proximity to a swimming pool might not be the best location for lilac since part shade might give you better luck and swimming pools give off reflection thus creating a special condition in which certain plants thrive and others do not. However, you could try them in that area by building an overhead structure to provide partial shade for them during the hottest time of the day. If well and artistically designed, and covered with 50% shade cloth overhead or 50% lath going in north-south direction (so shade moves as the sun moves from east to west) could be a special design feature adding interest to your garden. Descanso Hybrids, including ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Blue Skies’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Chiffon’, ‘Forrest K. Smith’, ‘Sylvan Beauty’, ‘White Angel’ and others do well in Zone 18.

  7. Hi Pat, l bought a California rose lilac from Costco almost 10 year,it never give flowers and only state in under 4 feet tall,what will be the problem. I am living in Monterey Park, CA. Please help. Thank you.

    • It sounds as if you planted your lilac near a lawn. Lilac plants that get too much water in fall and winter when they should be dormant, won’t bloom.

  8. Hi Pat. I was doing some online research about lilacs when I came across your site. I read with great interest your reply to Rachel 3 years ago and the comments and replies since. We live in the Los Angeles basin and was gifted a Lavender Lady from Descanso gardens 3 or 4 years ago. It is growing in a 3 ft tall pot, 7-9 hrs of sun. I keep the suckers pinched off and we get beautiful foliage. In all the time we’ve owned it, it has only flowered once and only a couple of sprigs. I feel it is due to one of two reasons. Either it isn’t getting the chill it requires or the soil isn’t alkaline enough. Your thoughts please. Thank you

    • My thoughts are that you need to plant it in the ground in an appropriate spot. Lilacs are not adapted to growing in containers. If foliage is beautiful, the soil may be alkaline enough due to irrigation water, which is alkaline here. If it is growing in a sheltered spot near the wall of your house or under an overhang, most likely there is not enough winter chill.

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