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Full bloom

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”— Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

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Every year, the summer sun returns to Highland Park before anywhere else in Rochester. The grass grows green and unruly, tree branches begin to bud, and for the past 125 years, lilacs burst forth in a brilliant display of violets, blues, pinks, and whites.

The Rochester Lilac Festival draws a half million visitors to Highland Park for ten days of what has become one of the city’s first big festivals of the year. The annual mid-May event features dozens of family-friendly attractions, but the flowers remain the stars of the show. The aroma of more than 200 varieties of lilacs wafts along winding paths where visitors take quiet respite from the bustling midway.

How did the Lilac Festival become so closely intertwined with our local culture and traditions? To understand, we need to go back to the birth of the city’s park system itself.

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How the Flour City became the Flower City

For a brief few decades in the early nineteenth century, Rochester’s flour mills outproduced all others worldwide, aided by low shipping costs afforded by the Erie Canal. Despite some setbacks in the mid-century, Rochester’s flour industry continued to boom, producing more than 1.5 million barrels of flour by 1901. By then, however, the Flour City crown passed to Minneapolis, which far surpassed our production.

As its reputation as the world’s Flour City declined, Rochester reinvented itself as the Flower City. Rochester’s main nursery, launched in 1839 by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry, rose to international prominence. By the end of the century, Ellwanger and Barry’s 650-acre Mount Hope Garden and Nurseries became the world’s largest flower company.

The Rise of Highland Park’s Lilacs

In 1888, the Rochester Parks Commission hired Frederick Law Olmsted to create a system of urban parks from donated land. Olmsted would become known as the father of American landscape architecture, whose works include New York’s Central Park, Boston’s Franklin Park, Buffalo’s Delaware Park, and North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate.

In Rochester, Olmsted created an “emerald necklace” of parks along the Genesee River as well as a new park on twenty acres donated by Ellwanger and Barry. The new Highland Park wrapped around one of the city’s reservoirs and afforded scenic, 360-degree views of the city and its suburbs.

Olmsted’s plan included tall pines on the north side of the park to create a secluded, woodland environment. Low shrubs on the south slope allowed the hillside to receive the sun and provide unobstructed views of the Genesee Valley and distant foothills.

The city hired park superintendent Calvin Laney and horticulturist John Dunbar to flesh out Olmsted’s vision. In 1892, Dunbar installed Highland Park’s first lilacs, transplanted from the Balkan Mountains in Eastern Europe. He expanded the small collection and bred thirty new varieties, including his famous sky-blue ‘President Lincoln.’

The Lilac Festival’s 125th anniversary commemorates a May 1898 weekend when more than 3,000 people showed up at Highland Park to appreciate the blossoming lilacs. Ten years later, in 1908, more than 25,000 people attended the first organized festival.

Dunbar’s successor put Highland Park on the map by making the lilac collection the largest in the world. Today, the park is home to more than 1,200 lilac shrubs that represent around 500 varieties.

When will they be blooming?

This year, the Rochester Lilac Festival sprawls out over ten days from May 12 to 21. Organizers set the schedule months in advance. The lineup includes arts and crafts vendors, carnival rides, a craft beer expo, delicious festival food, footraces, a parade, and wine tasting.

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But what is the best time to go if you want to see the lilacs in bloom?

“I remember as a kid in the 1960s that we had ‘Lilac Sundays.’ We would find out two weeks in advance when to go,” says Mark Quinn, Monroe County superintendent of horticulture. “I can’t tell you months in advance exactly when they will start blooming.”

Based on 100 years of records, however, Quinn says, eighty-five percent of the time, the lilacs are in bloom around May 15.

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A walker’s guide to Rochester’s lilacs

Superintendent Quinn’s favorite route through Highland Park will take you past some of the most famous varieties. He recommends planning your walk early in the morning or late in the evening “when the wind isn’t as high, and the fragrance is best.”

The walk begins at a purple crosswalk near Highland Avenue and South Goodman Street.

Look for the oldest lilac bush in Highland Park, the soft blue ‘President Grèvy’, which was planted in 1897. This plant is named after Jules Grèvy, who was president of France from 1879 to 1887. There are also varieties named in honor of celebrities like President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth II, and park designer Frederick Law Olmsted.

You will see many bushes bearing clusters of over fifteen creamy white florets. These are our namesake ‘Rochester’ lilacs. Also look out for ‘Sensation’, with dark purple florets edged in white.

Quinn says each variety of lilac blooms at a different time, so you are almost guaranteed a good show at any point during the festival.

If you miss the blooms this year, there are other attractions to see at Highland Park, including a bed of pansies with 15,000 to 20,000 plants forming a carpet of flowers with a different oval-shaped pattern each year. You can also visit the azaleas, magnolias, rhododendrons, Japanese maples, the impressive collection of pine and fir trees in the Pinetum, and the Lamberton Conservatory, an indoor botanical garden that’s open year-round.

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If you go

Here are some things to keep in mind as you plan your visit to this year’s Rochester Lilac Festival:

Bring cash—Many vendors accept credit cards, and there are ATMs everywhere. Still, you’ll probably need a $10 bill when you park. Every parking lot within several blocks of the festival will be staffed with people collecting money and directing traffic.

Think about seating—You will probably want to settle in for some of the 100 live music performances. Bring a picnic blanket or lightweight folding chair to make the most of the grassy, hillside venue.

Plan some quiet time—What makes the Lilac Festival special is the contrast between the noisy carnival atmosphere near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the serene paths of the Highland Park Hillside. Don’t forget to make time for the flowers.

Time your visit—Festival food, kids’ attractions, and other vendors are always on, but some events only happen once. If You want to see the parade, footraces, or a favorite band, check the festival website in advance.

Who’s your designated driver?—If you love to sample the offerings of the region’s finest vineyards and breweries, the Lilac Festival is your happy place. However, you’ll want to pace yourself or make arrangements for a safe trip home.

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