Home Blog Foraged lilacs always smell best
May 13th 2014

Foraged lilacs always smell best

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Growing up I often heard stories of lilac stealing. Grand adventures involving driving slowly down empty alleyways, secretly snipping branches that had escaped the property line and sometimes even sneaking into a vacationing neighbors yard for a handful of the fleeting fragrant blossoms.

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My parents were both very strict when it came to honesty, integrity and being a decent human being but lilacs and the sport of stealing them were never frowned upon. By the time I’d notice the purple flowers budding around town and mention it, they’d have already been stalking good snipping spots for weeks. Nothing too obvious, or where anyone would ever notice a missing handful or two, just little corners, quiet roads and abandon houses.

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Last weekend on our way home from a wedding delivery, Chris and I passed an old condemned house that’s been vacant for years with a yard full of blooming bushes. We carefully surveyed the scene to be sure there weren’t any tenats and then cut a huge armload of the fragrant blossoms for a bouquet.


Anyone well versed in the art of lilac thievery will tell you that foraged lilacs always smell best.

I can never figure out why but it’s true.

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I am often asked how to get the longest vase life from these fleeting flowers. There are a few factors that make all of the difference.

First, stage of harvest is important. I like to pick the flowers when at least 1/3 of the florets are open (pictured left). Lilacs don’t open much after they’re cut so if you harvest when they’re too closed, they’ll never fully open.

Second, you can certainly harvest fully open blossoms (pictured right) but the vase life will be decreased by a couple of days.

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Here’s the most important tip. Take off as many leaves as you can right after harvest (before and after removing leaves pictured left) so that the flower doesn’t have to work so hard keeping all of that foliage hydrated. Then slice up the woody stem and twist back (pictured right) so lots of the wood is split and able to take up water.

Set your freshly harvested blooms into a bucket filled at least 1/2 way full with water and then let them sit somewhere cool for a few hours before arranging. These simple steps work for me every time.

Now, if you have any tricks you’re willing to share, please leave them in the comment section below. I’d love to know what works for you!


  1. Andreane on

    We often have people stop along our property to harvest a bouquet or two. Our property line has lilacs all along it. Its lovely to think that people love to drove by our country house for the lilacs.

    My husband’s grandparents planted them when they lived here. I am harvesting them for cut flowers for the first time this year. Thank you for sharing your tips and tricks!

  2. Sonya on

    I dissolve a teaspoon of sugar in the water then put the flowers in the vase, I didn’t know about the cutting of the stem,thank you for that it makes sense, happy smelling ?

  3. Gardenstylist ulrike deussen on

    We are on your side – lilac must be found ( I avoid the word stolen but thats what we do) and my daughter finds some branches for me every mothers day. I must admit when I had lilac in my gardens I often lend my scissors to little thiefs. We enjoy your article a lot

  4. Kate on

    Why on earth do you think stealing someones flowers is ever acceptable. I am shocked you would write an article about it. How would you feel if someone cut your plants for this own personal bouquet? Dont be cheap and try to convince yourselves that cutting lilacs isnt stealing.

    • Alisa aliason on

      Abandoned house. .. house torn down..
      I hardly consider that stealing but I guess you’re right. Better no one should enjoy them than to enjoy them immorally.

  5. Brother Placidus OSB on

    We have these scattered all over our grounds, often where buildings once were but are not. It’s nice to have some hits on making them last longer…I’ve tried to get them many times but rarely have they lasted past that day!

  6. Renata Kogut on

    Many years ago, I gave my mother a white double Beauty of Moscow lilac that has these huge heavy racemes. It is her pride and joy and she hates cutting her flowers. My husband always goads me to take some when we go to the car but I can’t bring myself to do that to such a flower lover.

  7. Wedding Flower Emergency Kit - Floret Flowers on

    […] Clippers. Sort of a no-brainer, but you never want to be without one–or two or three–pairs of clippers. I usually have a pair of my favorite flower snips in the bag and another pair of heavier duty pruners too. You never know when you may need to do some “civic pruning” […]

  8. Mia on

    How timely.. I just stole some lilacs myself this week!! HA!! First time ever and oh boy, did they smell sweet! I wish I would have read this post on longer vase life tips before, however, as my lilacs almost entirely withered in 24 hours. Yesterday, i spotted another huge lilac bush by the train tracks on a busy road.. not sure if i have the confidence to grab some of those although it doesn’t technically belong to anyone and it’s the biggest lilac bush i’ve ever seen! Might have to snip a few more branches to try out all your tips! :)

  9. Rachael on

    Thanks for the suggestions; my drooping vase of lilacs was always a disappointment.

  10. Heather Gaume on

    Several weeks ago, I confess to climbing through a barbed wrie fence to cut lilacs that bloomed despite a prolonged drought. They had not been watered since the house was torn down two years ago, but were blooming away in miraculous defiance of their neglect.

  11. mj on

    wonder what the the cultivar names on these old varieties… I’m sure at some point they had names!

  12. Linda Jewett on

    I was hoping you would offer some tips. I’ll be out later tonight to harvest my own. They are on their way to the office tomorrow. Thanks much!

  13. Roxy on

    A friend of mine told me to lightly tap the ends with a hammer to split up the stem, but I’ll try your way probably next year as the lilacs here are about gone! Love this post!

  14. Karin on

    I’ve purchased a few potted Lilac this year to plant (when I catch them around the nurseries for a good price). Surely they take years to mature and just about the time they are large enough to be irresistible for hunters, perhaps I will pay it forward and look the other way when I see someone nip a few branches! ;) So very torn about the process of foraging and admit to doing a few daring things in the past. Lately I keep to wild brush that is likely someone’s property, but no one will miss what I snip. It is most difficult when I see unbelievable trees on church lots! For example we have in our city the biggest persimmon on the corner of a busy street and a church and it is painful to drive by in the autumn!!
    PS Is it wrong that I always have a pair of heavy duty shears in the glove box for any snip-tastic situation?

  15. Gretchen on

    Thanks for sharing your tips! I’ll have to try them . . . next year!

  16. Tom | Tall Clover Farm on

    Ah, but be warned gentle lilac stealers, for I’ve heard tales of quick draws with garden hoses that can douse the caper.

    • Karin on

      I’ll take that over rock salt in the rear any day! :D

    • Karin on

      What I mean is, I have heard tales of rock salt shotguns haha!

  17. Julie on

    I wish I could find some lilac to steal from – all the bushes I have seen are firmly inside private gardens! Cutting from my own tree this year I found that if I sprayed my lilac stems with water daily they lasted much longer.

  18. Sharon S on

    You are really doing the lilac bush a favor. At least mine is much happier when it gets “trimmed”. There’s nothing better than a room filled with the smell of lilacs.

  19. Lee Moore Crawford on

    You may know this but cutting stems under water fills air holes that are made with water really improves the vitality. I also dip flowers and sometimes leaves in the same bowl i keep beside me to hydrate.
    I love seeing your lilac photos..they are so short lived if at all here in central NC where it is getting up to 90 today. My neighbor has he only old fashioned lilac i know in the area , it is at least 30 years old and she watches it like a hawk because it is right on the sidewalk. : )

  20. katie Fleet on

    One of the best memories of my life, stealing lilacs on a spring evening in 1980. I’ve not done it since and you are right none have ever smelled as sweet.

    I’ve been so tempted to steal again this year, just as well I didn’t have the time! Love this post!

  21. Ashley Custer on

    Hot water also works best since it travels up the stem faster!

  22. Denise on

    Right on! Sometimes I think those flowers on an abandoned lot are just begging to be picked- I mean we are doing a service, right? Here’s a question, will that post harvest treatment work to extend the life of cut buddleia stems, too? Their fleeting, fragrant beauty is also one of my favorites.

  23. Martin Bakker on

    How tempting it is to climb over fences and get the scissors out…. I just can’t do it because I would cut the lot! I love the branches of lilac trees as well, they are so decorative. I’d better start planting a few in our cutting garden…
    Thanks for showing us your thievery. It will make me feel less bad when my secateurs do start leading their own life nearby a lilac bush…. xx


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