Even if you can't see them, the scent will let you know that lilacs are nearby. That unmistakable fragrance just screams spring. Native to eastern Europe and Eurasia, the shrub or small tree has been a familiar garden staple for nearly a thousand years, although the western world has only grown them since the 15th Century.
Syringa vulgaris has a number of legends and customs associated with its iconic blooms. First and foremost is the story behind its botanical name. Syringa was a beautiful wood nymph in Greek mythology. The god Pan spied her one day, lusted for her and took chase. Depending on the version of the story, to get away from him, she either transformed herself into a reed or a lilac bush, both of which make great flutes. Ultimately, Pan won because he made a flute from her disguise and it never left his side from then on.
The lilac is traditionally a funeral flower in Eastern Europe, and were placed in the caskets with the deceased. This is possibly because the intense perfume from the flowers probably masked the scent of death before modern funerary practices changed the custom.
It was considered bad luck to bring lilac blooms into the home in Great Britain and if a young lady wore a lilac blossom, she was destined to be single forever. They were also sent to someone if you wished to break an engagement. This belief contradicts the later Victorian Language of Flowers, where lilacs were a symbol of first love and white ones symbolized innocence, so the lilac has overcome those unfortunate superstitions and is now ranked as a beloved flower.
Lilacs also have a number of uses besides a lovely shrub and cut flower. The leaves are astringent and were used as a face wash and an infusion taken internally was a vermifuge. (that means a de-wormer...ewwww!) The flowers produce a green dye and the twigs produce orange. While the lilac scent is probably the most familiar scent in soap, perfume and cosmetics, it is very difficult to distill, so most lilac-scented things are made with synthesized fragrance.
Lilacs are northerner's answer to the southern azalea because they need more chill hours than the warmer southern winters can provide. They are normally grown in USDA zones 3 through 7, although there are a few cultivars that will bloom with less chill, they all need cold weather to be happy. Check with your local nursery or garden center for varieties best suited to your climate. Plant in full sun where there is good drainage and give your lilacs plenty of room to grow. Be patient, because it may take several years for your lilac to bloom. These shrubs can get quite tall, so to keep the pretty blossoms at a height where you can enjoy them, lilacs need to be pruned, but not until they get 6 to 8 feet tall. Once they have reached this size, prune to remove old wood, but only do so right after flowering. The flower buds for the next season form shortly after the current year blossoms have faded, so to keep your lilac in tip-top form, take out the oldest 1/3 of the branches each year at this time. Lilacs also form clonal colonies with suckers arising from the roots. You can simply cut those, or increase your lilac garden by planting them elsewhere. Plant your lilacs near windows, doors and patios so you can enjoy their scent. It seems a shame to banish something so lovely to the far reaches of the garden where they can't be enjoyed. So give them the spotlight they deserve.