Dying Lilac

mgecaSeptember 8, 2010

HI, hoping to save our lilac. We have a quite old lilac in our yard with 6-8 "trunks(?)." It is growing on gently sloping land, right at a point where the surface dips down about 4 feet to a pond. About 6 years ago I built a pond complex, with two streams going around the lilac, creating basically an island.

Within the past two weeks the lilac appears to be dying. All the leaves are gone from the tips of the "trunks," and the shrub does not appear healthy.

In building the pond some roots were cut but not what I consider an inordinate amount. It does seem that the surrounding streams, with impermeable rubber liners, might result in some loss of ground water to the shrub. Also, the "island" is heavily planted with ferns, hostas, many others to create a forest floor effect. These plants must be competing with the lilac for the water resource? It has been a very hot and basically dry summer. Other than our recent weather, for the past 5 years the lilac has thrived--at least to our eye, so we can't tell if this is a sudden occurence or long-term problem.

Is there anything we can do to stop this process, re-vitalize the lilac? We just lost part in a heavy wind storm and really want to keep what we can.

Thanks in advance for ideas. Pics are possible if needed.


Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Poke around in the dirt near it to see if there is an obvious problem with soil moisture.

Lilacs are said to be quite prone to honey fungus (Armillaria). When that lethally attacks the base of a shrub, the time comes when the top is pinched off and dies.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2010 at 9:53PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

are there suckers?? how do they look???

when is the last time you renovated it??? google renovation pruning of flowering shrubs ....

6 years since the pond .... i doubt its related ...

any history of particularly severe winters in the last 2 years ??? drought this summer????

a few pix wouldnt hurt ...


    Bookmark   September 9, 2010 at 9:53AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I just took some pix of current conditions and will download to computer later. Probably tomorrow I will post a "before" picture and the ones I took this evening.

The suckers are mixed in appearance, but I would say most have dying leaves. The only pruning I am aware of is the removal of many suckers that appeared to be new growth for the main shrub. There were so many it looked like a bamboo forest. Probably a mistake to remove all of them. My wife is the gardener but admits knowing nothing about many shrubs, including the lilac.

We did have a harsh winter and we are having a very hot summer, moist but not as much as average. The plants in and around the lilac have been watered regularly so maybe droughty conditions don't matter.

The lilac has seemed fragile for the past couple of years. One main branch (trunk, stem--what is it?) has been sagging badly and we are supporting it. A strong windstorm a couple of days ago (we weren't here) snapped off a large branch.

Can it be that the shrub simply is old and dying as a natural part of its cycle? We have been here 6 years; the previous owners, going back to 1922, always had professional gardening help.

I do appreciate the comments and will post the pics soon. It would be a shame to lose this lovely lilac due to some action or inaction on our part.

Thanks - Mike

    Bookmark   September 9, 2010 at 7:12PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Two thoughts. We have had a tough summer here and many things that were used to more gentle years have defoliated. That doesn't mean that they are dead. It could be a natural dormancy.
Second, we have a problem here in KS with lilac borer. If a borer partially interrupts the flow of sap, the stem survives until extreme stress from drought and/or heat occurs and it can no longer keep up - turning brown.
If it has been OK for 6 years a recent stress has affected it.
Thirdly (!) I agree with bboy that it sounds like a moisture problem - either too dry or too wet.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2010 at 8:10PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Lilac on "island" in early phase

In apparent good health in 2007

Current condition

Piece broken by high wind 8 days ago

Closer view, the broken branch comes from just below center.

Got around to cutting up fallen branch--8 days old-and it was dry. Everything looks fragile. Our seasonal high ground water table as just below the surface, not sure how deep in summer. First year here wife planted a garden and watered normally despite my cautions, and all drowned.

That is what makes me wonder if I have cut off circulation with foot-deep streams surrounding lilac. On the other hand, all the plants around and in the lilac are watered regularly--perhaps not enough to nourish lilac? It has been a long, extra-hot, droughty summer.

I think I agree with the determination that it is a water problem. I hope there are some clues in the pics and descrptions that will help you narrow the search and suggest remedies. We surely want to keep the lilac for many reasons and hope it is not beyond redemption.

Thanks for further thoughts. Mike

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 4:13PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
hortster(6a, southcentral KS)

Lilacs like a well drained situation and if well established can even survive severe drought. After the pictures and if the water table is that high you need a different plant. Think bboy hit it - a soil moisture problem, way too much.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 5:39PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I don't know. The lilac is several decades in the same ground water situation. I doubt now that my streams are interrupting the deeper summer water table; if that is the case, then too much water is problematic.

There is the variable of wife's intensive watering of herbaceous plants, but that has been going on for 5 years. From what I know about ground water and plants, there could be a cumulative effect over time. I don't know how susceptible to "drowning" lilacs are or if excessive watering balances out with drought.

What is the root structure like--how deep, how broad?

Perhaps this is a gradual thing creeping up on us?

In your opinion, can this plant be saved? We can stop watering, with some effort I could drain the area a bit but don't want to contemplate that except as a last resort.

We realize our setting around the pond will be very adversely affected by loss of the plant, and we also feel a need to be custodians to this venerable shrub.

Can anyone suggest action or is it too late, we can only sit and watch sorrowfully?

    Bookmark   September 11, 2010 at 8:03PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Highly likely that surrounding it that closely with a barrier to root growth has now backfired.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 1:51PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I think the first picture shows that we girdled the lilac with the inevitable outcome. There are some old cuts where large trunks/branches were removed some years ago, before our being here.

The pond location is the only one possible on the property and the stream locations were dictated by surrounding features. I did get way too aggressive with the streams and the desire to create Niagara. I gave thought to the lilac at the time, but figured it would be OK. The ground water is so high I had to cope with excessive soil creep as I built the right stream. As I said, high water table and dense silt loam soil mottled to the organic layer. Basement still dry after 90 years.

I'm still trying to get a handle on the root structure and water needs. I guess I am looking at damming water out, trapping water in, maybe too much weight from stones over the roots? What about fertilizer now? I guess backfired is a description, but maybe unforeseen consequences feels better.

I'm going to try some hand auger probes to perhaps 3 feet, see what conditions I find--if I can get past roots.

Do you think we are on a death watch, no remediation? Intellectually I have to know what happened.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 3:59PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

here is what i would do .. cut it to 3 inches from the ground.. and see if it puts up suckers next spring ....

perhaps the reduction of the root zone.. impacted its ability to keep its size...

total rejuvenation ... reducing the canopy ... may help it ADJUST the whatever roots are there ...

and.. if nothing comes up next spring.. dig it up ...

absolutely stunning scape.. good work ... dont mark yourself down for the lilac .... you need something better there regardless .... in fact.. that might be a vote to just be done with it now ...

i would lean toward a dramatic Jmaple .... if you can grow them in your zone5... as i cant do it in my z5 ...


    Bookmark   September 13, 2010 at 10:56AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks Ken-a kind compliment is really welcome about now. We have worked hard at it and it is a real different kind of gardening for sure.

I believe I have answered the question about cause. I have had a leak in my streams all year--losing by professional estimate about 60 gallons/hour.

Initially I thought the leak was in one stream and made appropriate repairs--but the water loss didn't stop. I finally discovered that the leak was in the opposite stream, which has been turned off for almost three weeks now.

If you look at my first picture, the stream closer to the camera had two large horizontal folds in the liner, as well as too low banks, and water was being channeled to the island, quite possibly inundating the lilac. Incidentally, the two streams are not connected as they may appear. There was no particular surface indication but visibility is limited by the plants--we goofed by not checking the soil more closely I suppose. I fixed up the area yesterday and will start the stream today and see if I am still losing water to the leak.

A working hypothesis to be tested in the next few days. In the meantime, I "ponder" the fate of the lilac. It is putting up shoots from the roots--gasping for air?--and will soon display its future. It was there and venerable and we worked with what we had. The idea of removing and replacing, just from a mechanical viewpoint, is daunting considering what root mass must be present. That's a post for another time. If I have an answer now, I can live with what comes next.

I will report back here or a new post on what happens. Everyone has been helpful and I am greatly appreciative of it all.

Any further comments or thoughts are most welcome. Thanks all--Mike

    Bookmark   September 13, 2010 at 5:39PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I just saw this post now, and I thought it must be too much water since my lilac is doing the same thing. We've had a lot more rain than normal this summer and the lilac is in a low lying spot and showed the same symptoms. It now seems to be recovering and is starting to have green leaf buds where the old leaves dropped off. So I believe that if you can fix the problem that the lilac should be able to recover.

Your landscaping is beautiful. That must have taken a lot of work.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2010 at 4:26PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Hi all, the story progresses. I asked the owner of a shrub and tree nursery, whom I trust implicitly, to stop by and take a look.

He believes the lilac is too dry based on a combination of symptoms! No fungus or borers, etc. Apparently this past spring had some odd weather and late frosts so that his stock lilacs look like mine, and he lost some other stock as well. So the shock as well as dry conditions leave me where I am. Prune it back and see what happens.

I probed the soil - some job with the roots - with a 3" soil auger and found no moisture to 14"

Here's the (new) possibility: if you look at my second picture you can see how the surface dips down toward the large stones. They have rubber liner behind then and any groundwater drainage will hit the liner and head toward the underneath of the pond. There are three 4" drainage pipes under the pond due to the high table, and they connect to my storm drain. The working hypothesis now is that I have encouraged drainage and drying rather than capturing it and flooding the lilac. I have noticed water when there shouldn't be water at the drain outlet but thought it was just drainage from elsewhere on the property.

There is a big stream out of sight to the right of the picture, and when I constructed it the water and soil creep was so great that I had to build a concrete retaining wall at the base of the stream.

Athena, thanks for the nice words and information. The landscape is in its second year in that picture. A lot of work and thought thanks to my partner--I do the stones and water and she does the plantings.

I will post a couple of pictures from 2009 to show the scene in its fourth year. It is quite nice. If anyone shows an interest.

Less head scratching and more physical exploration ahead.

Thanks to everyone. I hope for some comments on the recent thoughts. Mike

    Bookmark   September 16, 2010 at 7:31AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Hamamelis vernalis 'Amethyst'
Potted plant I didn't get to plant this past fall....
Harry Lauder
Need help growing Harry Lauder shrub, like how,seed?...
Does anyone know what kind of shrub this is?
Landscaper planted it calling it silver green, but...
Evergreen Privacy Shrub Hedge
I want to plant an evergreen shrub hedge as a privacy...
Hello, I need help with my hazelnuts
About 8 years ago I purchased 20 Twigs with roots....
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™