Frost Nipped White Lilacs in the Bud

It’s official. There will be no white lilac blooms in joene’s garden this spring. I waited and watched and hoped for the best, but it’s clear now that the March weather nipped my white lilacs in the bud. This is my first weather-related gardening casualty for 2012.

You remember March. Early month record warmth caused unusually early leaf-break. Then late month frosts and hard freezes stopped by for a few nights. Apparently my white lilacs just weren’t up to the cold. This is what the larger of the two looks like now. The uppermost leaves are browned and curled while lower leaves are completely normal.



This is what it looked like last spring.



Seasoned gardeners know there can be many reasons for lack of lilac bloom.

  • Young or transplanted lilacs may take six or seven years to produce flowers. My white lilacs are not young; they’ve bloomed consistently for the last 12 years.
  • Poor pruning will prevent blooms. I prune lilacs as they should be pruned, immediately after they cease blooming. I cut all spent flowers off at the same time so the shrubs put energy into setting new flower buds for the following spring. I’ve been following this procedure, with much success, for decades.
  • Over fertilizing with nitrogen will encourage leaf, rather than flower, growth. I only fertilize with compost and worm castings, and infrequently at that. There was no fertilization around the lilacs in the past year
  • Insect- or disease-stressed shrubs may not bloom. My shrubs have no known disease or insect stress.

The late March freeze is the only cause I can think of for the lack of bloom in these two white lilacs.

I feared this freeze might kill the white lilac buds so I covered the larger of the two shrubs with a sheet – it’s the one I see most often from the house. But this was a gardening oops, it did nothing but turn the uppermost leaves – those in contact with the sheet – brown. The next morning the shrub left uncovered looked better than the covered one. Not being one to let a good comparison go to waste, I figured I would watch for any bloom differences between the two shrubs.

But the blooms never materialized on either shrub. Both show similar freeze damage though the one I covered has more brown-tipped leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Yet … my purple lilacs are blooming as they have for years. They will be fully open within the next few days.

So why didn’t frost thwart the purple lilacs? I cannot say for sure, but my years of gardening experience leads me to think the difference is due to breeding. The purple lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is the plain old common lilac so prevalent in the northeast. The purple lilac pictured above came from divisions of a shrub at my previous home, and that common lilac was decades old.

My white lilac (unfortunately, I misplaced the plant tag and cannot recall the exact cultivar) was bred to remain more compact than the, usually taller, common white lilacs. Often, cultivars are not as tolerant of harsh conditions as the original species. In other words, breeding for smaller size somehow bred out some hardiness.

Any plant aficionados out there have any other ideas that might have led to the lack of white lilac blooms?

Any other Connecticut or Northeastern gardener making similar observations?

Please, please share.


Garden thoughtfully … and did you happen to notice the difference from 2011 to 2012 in the bloom dates on the photo labels? In 2011, lilacs in my south-central Connecticut gardens bloomed in mid-May. This year purple lilacs will be in full bloom within the next few days, about 3 weeks earlier than last year.

Read more on lilacs for Connecticut gardens from UConn Plant Database.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Joene Hendry

15 comments for “Frost Nipped White Lilacs in the Bud

  1. April 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    No!! I’m so sorry to hear this. What a bummer. It had seemed that the white lilac that you did not cover might be okay. As someone fairly new to gardening with perennials, it helps to hear that the more prevalent common varieties of a lot of plants seem to also be the hardiest. I’m trying to keep this in mind going forward with my plant investments! It’s easy to be tempted by something new and fancy, but what I really want is the tried and true plant that I can depend on and will not be overly fussy or needy. I’m glad you still have the purple lilacs this year, but I’m sure those gorgeous white ones will be sorely missed!

    • April 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Aimee, I am missing the white lilac blooms. The shrub is visible from my kitchen. Hopefully they will return next year. Hopefully we will have more ‘normal’ weather.

  2. April 19, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Your poor white lilac, how disappointing not to see its pretty flowers. You’ve clearly eliminated other causes, so the non-blooms have to be the result of that one hard freeze. I have no lilacs, so can’t compare experiences. I do have a soft spot for the ancient tall white lilacs that are all over Stockbridge, Mass. I wonder if they were hit by the freeze as well (may have to take a trip up there and see.)

    The hybrids are the prima donnas and we love them for that, but the plain old species are the reliable ones.

    • April 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      Laurrie, I felt the same when your while magnolia blooms were nipped by the same freeze. I’m not sure the ancient tall white lilacs would respond any differently that the purple species. I know my white lilac is not the species so I assume it is not as hardy as the cultivar. The lack of bloom may not be just that one freeze, but the combination of very early warmth … remember January … followed by more seasonable cold, followed by early March warmth then the late March freeze. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect that nixed the blooms. I’ve also noticed pink dogwoods are not blooming well, yet the white ones are fine.

    April 19, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    My wisteria has two blooms fully open today–close to the coast in Fairfield!

  4. April 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Oh, Joene, I’m so sorry for such a devastating nip. Lilacs were my father’s fav. They never set buds here because of a lack of enough old days in winter.

    • April 21, 2012 at 7:22 am

      Nell Jean, this is a first for me. I’ve been gardening with lilacs for decades and never saw this before.

  5. April 21, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Joene, Score another victory for the plain, old common lilac. I agree that the probelm probably has to do with breeding. The only lilacs I have now are both Miss Kim’s which bloom later so no issues with a late cold snap. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for any white lilacs I may see as I’m traveling around town.

    • April 21, 2012 at 7:25 am

      Thanks, Debbie. My white lilacs have been an early spring show stopper. I’d love to learn of another Connecticut gardener having the same issue this year.

  6. April 21, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Joene, I’m so sorry to hear that you lost your beautiful white lilac blooms this year, but I’m glad that the purple ones survived the cold. A year without that wonderful lilac scent would be such a loss! Both white and purple lilacs are currently blooming in my southern PA neighborhood. We were lucky in that we’ve had cooler weather in April that slowed things down a bit, but not severe cold.

    • April 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      Jean, I recently learned of another area garden with no blooms. It must have been the weather.

  7. April 25, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    So sorry to hear about your white lilac, I envy your lilacs…fond childhood fragrance. I have a Chinese Fringetree that for some reason did not bloom at all this year. It has been a crazy winter and a roller coaster spring.

    • April 25, 2012 at 9:31 pm

      Janet, it sure has been/is a crazy spring. We have frost warnings up again tonight and probably will have the same over the weekend. Now I’m wondering how well the early-leafed-out hydrangea will bloom.

  8. May 2, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Joene, finally, a couple of my lilacs bloomed . . . sparsely. Here’s hoping you’ve found a few surprise lilac blooms in your garden.

    • May 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm

      Great, Lee. Glad you had some lilacs. My purple syringa vulgaris is almost done blooming. I’ll have to wait for next spring to see white lilacs in my yard though.

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