The Lilac Festival

For over 20 years, Highland Park in Rochester has hosted a Lilac Festival each May, and prior to the festival there was Lilac Sunday, a day coinciding with the lilacs’ peak bloom. Every year for thousands of people spring does not officially arrive in Rochester until they have wandered through Highland Park and taken time to smell the lilacs.

The 10-day Lilac Festival attracts an estimated half-million visitors annually with its wide variety of activities and seasonal sights to usher in spring. There are concerts, arts-and- crafts shows, the Lilac 10K race, a colorful parade, the Lilac ’N Kids stage featuring entertainment for children, and a wide variety of food, to say nothing of the main attraction, the more than 1,200 lilac bushes.

The arrival of the first blooms of the city’s most famous and fragrant flowering shrub cannot always be timed exactly. To Kent Millham, one of three Horticultural Aides with the Monroe County Parks department, lilacs are his main concern. He’s quick to point out that the festival-goer will always find some beautiful flowering shrubs, trees and flowers. “If the lilacs are late,” reassures Millham, who has worked at the park for 28 years, “it doesn’t really make any difference because we have magnolias, tulips and forsythias. If the lilacs are early, they’ll still get to see the late varieties.” Lilacs may range from deep purple to pure white in color, from lightly scented to highly aromatic, and from early to mid- and late-blooming varieties.

“Some people come just to see the Pansy Bed,” according to Millham, who explains that the floral attraction is about 100 years old. Each year 15,000 pansies are grown by the Monroe County Parks Department and planted in the bed in a different design.

Highland Park has 580 types of the more than 2,000 known varieties of lilacs on 22 of its 155 acres. The park’s lilac collection was started with 20 varieties planted on the sunny southern slopes of the park by its first superintendent, horticulturist John Dunbar in 1892. His successor, Bernard Slavin, expanded the collection to the present size, making it the largest lilac collection in the world.

Highland Park is included in the Mount Hope Preservation District which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Portions of the park were designed by America’s greatest landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Earlier, Olmsted designed Central Park in New York City. In shaping the Rochester site he created winding footpaths and carriage drives and planted the hillsides with hundreds of trees and shrubs. It is unique among Olmsted-designed parks in that it was conceived as an arboretum to display trees and shrubs for the education of the public.

“An arboretum is a living laboratory where you can go and see plants and how they grow,” says Millham. Highland Park’s collection ranges from azaleas to yews. For the visitor who wants to know which of the over 500 varieties of lilacs he or she is admiring, the plants are usually labeled. “They’ll have the Latin name, the common name, the place they’re native to, and sometimes a location number,” according to Millham.

Millham says with so many varieties of lilacs it’s hard to have a favorite, although he does mention three of his by name: Rochester, Frederick Law Olmsted, and one called Glory, adding “because that one has gigantic flowers.” It was a former Monroe County director of parks, Alvan Grant, who discovered the Rochester lilac which Millham describes as “one of the greatest hybrids.” He planted the seedling in 1947, and named it in 1963 according to Millham. Most lilacs have four petals, or if they’re a double, two sets of four, but the Rochester has what’s referred to as “radial double.” A single floret may have up to 25 petals. Besides beautiful, nearly quarter-size blooms that some of the Rochester lilacs have, Millham says this variety is really good for hybridization which is how new varieties are developed.

Millham, a Rochester native, says he got his love of gardening from his grandfather and enjoys seeing a plant, tree or shrub grow over time. “There’s a tulip tree I planted in the park about 1978,” says Millham adding, “Now it’s about 50 feet tall. It’s satisfying to see your work growing.” At the Lamberton Conservatory, the indoor greenhouse located in the park, Millham will soon be able to keep track of the tulip tree and other plants with a new data management system especially for arboretums. When complete, there will be data available for every single plant in the park, its location, its condition; and if it’s a tree, how tall and widespread it is.

In preparation for the annual Lilac Festival, Millham carries out all of the pruning, making sure the lilacs are in good shape. Right after the festival ends, he begins propagating plants. “That’s how we keep the collection going,” explains Millham, who propagates those plants which need to be replaced. Sometimes they may trade to get different varieties. He also spends time fielding the detailed questions about lilacs, since Millham has become an authority on the subject. With advance notice Millham will also give tours to groups such as garden clubs, although there would be a charge for this. He currently serves on the board of directors of the International Lilac Society, an organization of lilac fanciers. Millham is modest about his knowledge. “The reason I’m an expert is that Highland Park’s is one of the largest collections in the world; I get to see close to 600 varieties every year.

“I pitch in with the festival-type stuff, too,” adds Millham, who says he helps sell plants and also has to pick up after the public. While he enjoys the Lilac Festival because the lilacs are blooming, the lilac authority also admits he gets a kick out of all the excitement and has even been known to indulge in a couple of “Garbage Plates,” a specialty of Nick Tahou’s, one of the festival food vendors.

For more information on the Lilac Festival go to www.lilacfestival.com or call the Greater Rochester Visitors Association at (585) 546-3070 or (800) 677-7282. For information on tours at the park call the conservatory at (585) 256-5878.


by Laurel C. Wemett, photographs by Dorothy Kennedy
Laurel C. Wemett owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.