Reblooming lilacs: The hype and the reality

Josee and Bloomerang lilacs are sold as rebloomers, which will flower in late summer and fall as well as in spring. How do they really perform in the Midwest?

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    The heavenly scented blossoms of ‘Josee’ delight in spring, but later blooms depend on cool summer weather.

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Treasured for their gorgeous, lush blooms and incredibly intoxicating fragrance, lilacs are a longtime garden favorite, dating back to the mid-1700s when both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew them in their gardens.

A sentimental spring garden favorite of mine, the modestly named common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) has been the one bush I couldn’t imagine not growing. Treasured for their big, flamboyant, oh-so-fragrant panicles of trumpet-shaped blossoms, lilacs are fairly carefree plants, often living for decades in the landscapes.

Some of my tried-and-true favorites, plants that enchanted generations of gardeners before me, include ‘Charles Joly’, a very prolific, very fragrant wine-red double flowered beauty; Sensation’, dark red-purple blossoms edged in white; and ‘Beauty of Moscow’ (Syringa vulgaris ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’), a stunning beauty with double white flowers.

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A newcomer to my garden, primarily because yellow-colored blossoms are an oddity in the lilac family, is the only yellow-flowered lilac (actually more like a very pale almost creamy yellow), ‘Primrose’.

Finding a lilac blooming in fall

I admit that I fancy the oddities of the plant world. So I can’t help but notice when reading current gardening magazines, the numerous ads for the “new reblooming ‘Josee’ lilac”. A reblooming lilac! But as one of my garden club friends put it …“Is there such a thing as a reblooming lilac?”

From my personal experience, I can say: Reblooming? Yes. New? No …and yes!

I acquired my first ‘Josee’ lilac some 17 or 18 years ago, while visiting a childhood friend in Canada. Plant nuts that we were (and still are), we spent our days traipsing through nurseries, until that fateful day when, without any great expectations, we stopped at a nursery specializing in lilacs. Nosing around, we were instantly attracted by a familiar, heady sweet fragrance that could only be given off by a lilac bush in full bloom.

Yet it was September, so how was this possible? Laughing, we joked that it must be one of our beloved grandmothers, both staunch fans of lilac perfume, who surely had just passed this way.

Following our noses around a corner, we stood – amazed and dumb-founded – eyeball to lavender-pink blossoms with ‘Josee’ in full, magnificent bloom.

She was covered top to bottom in hundreds of short trusses of blowsy flowers, that not only delighted our senses but, obviously, those of the myriad of butterflies flitting about, as well. They were as smitten with the plant as we were.

We must have been a sight, standing there, mouths gapping, staring at what seemed to be, for lack of a better explanation, a horticultural miracle.

There is no other way to describe that encounter. It was lust at first sight!

I could hardly wait to get ‘Josee’ back home to the western suburbs of Chicago, envisioning drinking in the heady fragrance of the bush on hot summer days, and basking in the beauty of vases full of gorgeous lilac blooms in fall. Oh, wasn’t I going to be the envy of the neighborhood?

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out quite that way.

What I expected, what the cultural tag promised me, was a four-to-six-foot bush with tons of big, indispensable sweet-scented blossoms early in the spring on the first flush of bloom, followed by sporadic blooms throughout summer, and one more major flush when the weather cooled.

What I got was a dwarf lilac of fragrant but small, lavender-pink flowers in spring – in the nearly two decades that I’ve enjoyed ‘Josee’, only twice has she rewarded me with a truly sizeable flush of fall blossoms.

As for summer ... apparently, she never read the same tag as I did, for she’s never given me more than a few sporadic flowers here and there during our incredibly hot, muggy dog days of summer.

In those first few years, I would call my friend in Canada to compare notes. In July, she described the sweet fragrance of the blossoms as she gardened under the shrub (while I drooled with envy), and in September, she gloated with one-upmanship as she picked enough stems for bouquets.

Was my ‘Josee’ lacking somehow? I asked myself. She seemed to have settled in, looked healthy, grew several inches each year, so where were the myriad of promised blossoms?

But if truth be told, I should have known better.

Like most lilacs, ‘Josee’ thrives in cool weather. So in the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, New England, and Canada (and other locales with reasonably cool summers) she will put on a magnificent show, reblooming three – even four times – during a growing season.

But here in the Midwest, our muggy, hot days and nights just put her in a funk.

I did eventually purchase another bush, planting it closer to the house where it gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Though I now accept the fact that there will be no strong waftings of that heady scent in summer, I treasure the few sporadic blossoms she puts forth during those rare cool(er) summers.

The new kid on the block

However, there is a “new” reblooming lilac on the market these days: ’Bloomerang’ purple lilac (Syringa ‘Penda’) from Proven Winners.

I have only one year’s worth of experience with this still-small plant, but so far, so good.

Unlike ‘Josee’, which needs to be pruned after flowering, ‘Bloomerang’ does not. What blossoms I had last year were bigger and deeper in color than ‘Josee’ and, thankfully, produced more blossoms in late summer, which continued until frost.

So, as ‘Bloomerang’ matures, maybe I will finally be rewarded with those longed-for armloads full of fragrant, blowsy lilac stems every fall!

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Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of 'In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.' She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy. To read more by Betty, click here.

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