Pruning Dwarf Korean Lilac

Happy First Day of Summer!  I decided as I was pruning my Dwarf Korean Lilac (syringa meyeri ‘Paliban’) last weekend that I would try to capture a bit of what I was doing to help some of you out.  Sorry, I don’t do video.

I remembered that when I had a post about this shrub last year, I got a bunch of searches about pruning it.  So here goes.  And yes, I know that the photos aren’t really all that instructive.

First, you want to prune all the dead flowers off.  You want to do this for two reasons. The first is mainly cosmetic.  The dead flowers are ugly and the shrub will look better when you’re done.

Next you want to do this after it blooms because lilacs bloom on old wood.  So the sooner you prune, the sooner the lilacs begin to make that “old wood” (which is really this year’s growth) so that they will bloom next year.

Next, as you’ll notice, the shrub branches weirdly around the dead flowers.  Sometimes it branches off nicely on either side of them as shown here.

And sometime it branches off in all directions from the flower as shown here.

In this second case, you need to make a choice as to where to cut.  I usually go back into the shrub and find a place where it is branching nicely in two directions so the shrub will grow symmetrically.

If I can’t find a spot like that, I will cut where I can find a group of leaves facing the direction where I want the branch to grow.  Since, as you see, this group of branches is relatively close to the ground, I would want an upward facing group of leaves.  I might have to go pretty far back into the shrub to find it–but this part of the shrub is pretty mature so I’m okay with that.

Finally, I’ll find awkward growth and remove that.

Not only is this branch lanky and spindly, but it’s hitting the mailbox too.  I’m going to go way down into the shrub–not just to the next set of branching leaves–when I prune this so that it’s awhile before it comes up and bumps the mailbox again.

Finally, once I’m done “deadheading, I’ll take a look to see if there are any crossing branches that might rub–I’ll remove those.

I also, for the first time this year, removed some branches that were making the shrub too dense.  After several years of pruning at the “Vs” I had lots of thick growth down in the center of the shrub.  I thinned that out a bit.

And I never hesitate to cut the shrub “down to size.”  The mature height of this shrub is supposed to be four to six feet.  Remember the “plants can’t read” rule.  Sometimes you get a branch that’s just going to sport way above that.  And sometimes, despite the mature size, that isn’t exactly what you want (the mailbox is roughly 5′, for example, so I try to keep the lilac on the same scale).

It would be totally wrong of me to put a plant that wants to get to 7-9′ in there and to try to keep it at 4-5.’  Not only would that be a herculean task; it would be stunting the character of the shrub.  Far better to wait for a dwarf variety of that shrub to come along.

We’ve all seen those “foundation” plantings that now obscure the second story windows on older homes.  Don’t make that same mistake. Don’t wrestle with your shrubs.  And don’t make the mistake of thinking “I can just keep it pruned.”

19 thoughts on “Pruning Dwarf Korean Lilac

  1. Jenny June 6, 2016 / 6:43 am

    This is very helpful, also as I now know the proper name of my small lilac bush – Dwarf Korean Lilac (you might want to correct the spelling of that in the heading!). The bush is getting too tall so I am now going to try to prune it back without ruining it.

    • gardendaze June 6, 2016 / 8:14 am

      Hi Jenny,
      Thanks so much for being my proof reader!

      Don’t be afraid to prune. And Always remember, if you’re a little afraid, cut back too little at first, and then you can always go back and cut back a little bit more. Good luck and thanks for reading and commenting!


    • kate September 7, 2016 / 10:09 am

      Thanks…great article I can understand.

  2. Melody Bresnahan June 18, 2016 / 10:59 am

    I have a dwarf Korean lilac bush that actually does need to be trimmed & shaped a bit on its sides. What is the best tool and method to do that, please

    • gardendaze June 18, 2016 / 11:52 am

      Hi Melody,
      A pair of hand pruners is the best tool to use. Since the shrub tends to sprout from the direction of its growth, prune it to an outward facing branch, not an inward facing one. That way, the new growth will grow out and not back into the plant.

      Whatever you do, don’t do what my husband, the Spoiler, would like to do, and just take a hedge trimmer and shear it. That will not give you good results.

      Even if you just take a few branches at a time, the results will be worth it.

      Thank you for reading and commenting.


      • Melody Bresnahan June 19, 2016 / 3:39 pm

        Karla – Thank you so very much!

  3. Theodore Frimet July 2, 2016 / 11:34 am

    Thank you!!

    • gardendaze July 2, 2016 / 12:05 pm

      And thank you for reading and commenting!


  4. Christine Smith May 13, 2017 / 7:55 pm


    My dwarf lilacs in front of my bay windows are almost 30 years old and only have green leaves and flowers on the very top, the rest is bare woody branches. My question is: Will they shrubs come back if I trim them way down? Will they get fuller growth again?

    Thank you so much,

    • gardendaze May 14, 2017 / 8:10 am

      They will come back, but it will take years and likely you will get so frustrated at looking at stubs that you will rip the bushes out in frustration.
      Your better plan is to approach this as a 3 years project. The first year, cut back 1/3 of the branches. The second year cut back another third. By the last year, you will have the shrub trimmed down.
      Also, by the way, a good rule of thumb is to not cut the shrub down by more than a third–in other words, don’t cut it down to the ground. If the shrubs is 7 feet tall now, at most take off 2 1/2 feet.

      I hope that helps. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  5. Grammi Dee June 7, 2017 / 3:18 am

    I have two 3-4 y/o plants which have never bloomed, some leaves have black crumbly tips. Any help?

    • gardendaze June 7, 2017 / 5:23 am

      Oh goodness! First of all, let me congratulate you on your patience.

      The black, crumbly tips you are describing is probably sooty mold. That means you have a fungal disease, but it’s often a secondary sign of an insect infestation. Check the leaves for aphids (small insects which can be lots of different colors–green, black or even red!) OR check the plant stems for what looks like little bumps in un-natural spacing. That could indicate a scale infestation.

      If you find either, clip a small section of the plant, seal it in a plastic bag and take it to your favorite garden center for a recommendation on how best to treat it at this time in your area.

      Another reason why all lilacs fail to bloom is too much shade. And the final reason is pruning at the wrong time. Lilacs should be pruned right after bloom. Now I know yours have never bloomed, but if you’re pruning in the spring, for example, or even right before dormancy in winter, you’re cutting off what would be next year’s flowers.

      I hope all this helps. Good luck and thanks for reading and commenting.


  6. Chelsea October 3, 2017 / 2:17 pm

    Hello, I have a newly planted dwarf lilac, planted in August. Some of the leaves are now turning a yellow/red and it’s very difficult to tell if that’s because we’re going into fall? Or because it’s being over watered? Do the lilac leaves change color during the seasonal/temperature shift? Or am I doing something wrong? I’m in Colorado where it’s hot during the day but cold at night.

    • gardendaze October 3, 2017 / 3:07 pm

      Hi Chelsea,
      A dwarf lilac planted in August will turn colors (usually yellow) and lose its leaves. I suspect that the red may be a reaction to the unusual cool weather that Colorado is having–I am not sure where you are, but I have read that lots of places have already seen snow. That would be a bit much for your newly planted lilac.

      What you don’t want to do right now is to prune–lilacs often take a few years before they bloom but just in case yours might have a few blooms next year, you don’t want to cut those off.

      The best thing is to just let the plant go dormant for the winter. They’re usually pretty hardy. Then next spring you can reassess how the new leaves–& any blooms–look.

      Good luck and thanks for reading and commenting.


  7. Jane Hay October 26, 2020 / 11:34 am

    I have a split branch,i tied back together a few years ago .Still tied but should I cur it off.

  8. Al Miller September 7, 2021 / 8:14 am

    My Dwarf Korean Lilac decided to bloom twice this year. It bloomed beautifully in late April-early May and i trimmed it lightly immediately after the blooms died. It’s now September and I have a lot of new growth sticking out everywhere and at least twenty blooms. Question: do I trim again? Will Spring blooms be possible if I trim in in late September?

    • gardendaze September 7, 2021 / 8:49 am

      No don’t trim now. They bloom on new growth so if you trim now you’ll be cutting off your spring bloom. Since it will lose its leave shortly, you’ll only have to look at untidy twigs for a bit. Then you can prune it hard in the spring–but of course after bloom, so you don’t lose all your gorgeous flowers! Thanks for reading!

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