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And each time I pass a lilac in bloom, I inhale deeply in hopes of recreating those childhood memories. The problem is that I live along the coast of California, in a zone 9 climate, which means it rarely gets cold enough for most varieties of lilacs to bloom. Lilacs fall within a category of plants that, in order to bloom the following spring, require a specific number of cold days with temperatures ranging between 32 - 45 degrees. While those of us in warm climates can certainly go ahead and plant lilacs, if they don’t receive the required amount of cold temperatures, the plants will decline. Those once full and bountiful lilacs found at the nursery (fresh out of a greenhouse with ideal temperatures) will slowly show signs of distress throughout the years; thinning foliage, random flowering and a slow but certain death.
Thank goodness there are a few varieties that have been bred to tolerate warmer climates! If you live in a warmer zone, consider the variety 'Miss Kim' for consistent and fragrant blooms. I have one in my garden that’s been growing for years, and while it’s not as fragrant as traditional lilacs, it comes pretty darn close. ‘Miss Kim’ is a compact shrub, growing to 8-feet tall and wide with light lavender flowers that bloom in mid-March. This variety is also one of the few lilacs whose leaves turn fall colors, with deep burgundy tinges to them.
Other varieties that do well in temperate climates are ‘Lavender Lady’ and ‘Blue Skies’ (both with traditional dusty purple-colored flowers) and ‘Angel White’ (with prolific white flowers) all quickly growing to 12-tall by 6-feet wide.
Besides their delicious scent, people love lilacs for their large and conical shaped flowers (called ‘panicles’) that burst forth in the early months of spring. These flowers not only herald in spring with their beautiful shades of purple, pink and white but they’re also an important source of nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds.
And if you’re someone like me who can’t plant enough lilacs in their garden, consider using other plants that have a very similar flower, both in color, shape and size.
For example, the Chaste Tree (vitex agnus-castus) has flowers that are very similar in color, size and shape to a lilac’s. One advantage, though, is the Chaste Tree blooms for months and months at a time, versus a lilac’s fleeting blooms that last a few weeks. The Chaste Tree is a large, multi-trunked deciduous shrub quickly growing to 15’ or so. However, it’s easily kept much smaller by pruning when dormant. The Chaste Tree not only produces hundreds of lightly scented flowers, but it’s an excellent choice for a drought tolerant garden, requiring very little water once established.
Another lilac substitute is the Butterfly Bush (buddleia species). These semi-deciduous shrubs vary in size from a diminutive 2-feet to a towering 15-feet, all preferring full sun. The flowers come in a rainbow of colors and have a delicious fragrance similar to vanilla.
In many areas throughout the country, the Butterfly Bush is considered very invasive, so check with your local extension office to verify before planting. Luckily, though, there are a few varieties that are either sterile or produce fewer seeds and are much more environmentally friendly. ‘Lo and Behold Blue Chip’ is a charming dwarf variety (growing to only 2-feet tall) with purple-blue flowers. ‘Miss Ruby’, with its fragrant deep pink flowers, grows a little larger topping out at about 5-feet tall. Again, this variety produces very little seed and is a less aggressive choice for your garden.