Before there were the Lilac Stage, the vendors and the fried dough, there was a quiet patch of south-facing hillside, well-drained and warmed by the sun.
That was 115 years ago, when horticulturist John Dunbar started Highland Park’s fragrant lilac collection with 20 varieties, some of them descendants of flowers native to the Balkan Mountains.
Six years after Dunbar planted those first lilacs at the corner of Highland Avenue and Goodman Street, the Lilac Festival began. Three thousand people showed up on a Sunday in May 1898 to see and smell the blooms of the young shrubs. Within a decade, the number of visitors had blossomed into 25,000.
These days, more than 500,000 people come to the 10-day event in mid-May, making the Lilac Festival the largest such event in North America. And there are now more than 1,200 bushes of the much-loved bloom in shades ranging from brightest white to deep purple. Five-hundred fifty varieties cover 22 hilly acres in the 155-acre park.
For the headiest fragrances, seek out the oldest shrubs, near the pansy bed on Highland Avenue, says horticulturist Kent Millham, a 31-year veteran of the park and editor of the International Lilac Society Journal. Older cultivars are the most fragrant, particularly Evangeline, one of the first to open. (“You can smell it from a long ways away,” he says.) Newer varieties are bred with an eye to color.
The earliest bloomer is Hyacinthi flora plena, a double blue with small flowers. One of Millham’s favorites is the creamy white Rochester lilac, developed here by Alvin Grant, a former director of the Monroe County Parks Department who recently passed away. Some of the florets on the Rochester have radial doubling, with up to 20 petals on one floret-in other words, more power to the flower.
It’s such a unique trait that Richard Ferlicchia, a Highland horticulturist in the 1960s and ’70s who developed some 20 cultivars, used it as the parent for most of his hybrids, Millham says.
The park has run out of room to expand the collection, so newer shrubs are planted when old ones die out. The oldest lilac bush in the park is the lilac-colored Alphonse Lavallee. Planted in 1892, it holds court almost directly behind the pansy bed.
Another longtimer is Adelaide Dunbar, developed and planted in 1917 by horticulturist Dunbar in honor of his wife. That one, a double purple, can be found right next to the pansies.
Dunbar developed some 30 cultivars of the 60 that originated at Highland.
The Highland lilac collection is one of the largest in the world. As recognized as it is, however, it’s still only one part of a renowned arboretum contained within Highland Park. The park was a gift to the city in the late 1800s from nurserymen George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry. With the intention of creating an arboretum, the city hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the park. Rather than calling all the shots, Olmsted forged a rare 50-50 partnership with the city to develop and design this park, making Highland absolutely unique in his body of work.
The horticultural displays that Highland is famed for, including the lilacs, were the city’s priority, not Olmsted’s, but he blended them into his vision with signature finesse. The park’s hills and valleys feature rare plants and trees, stately oaks and pines that tower like sentries overhead, and hundreds of varieties of azaleas, rhododendrons, magnolias and lilacs.
“People always think of the lilacs, but actually we have a real good arboretum. It has a lot of unusual trees in it,” Millham says. “The pinetum was designed to look like you were coming up a mountain, with the towering conifers on each side.”
Park visitors who stop by in May before the festival will see the magnolias in bloom. Gracing the path leading up to the conservatory on Reservoir Avenue, they burst forth in pinks, whites and, with unusual recent additions, yellows.
After the festival, check out the irises. Millham believes the park’s new beds of Louisiana iris hold the largest collection this far north. Blooming around the third week of June, they follow the opening of the bearded iris that is more typically seen in these parts.
Azaleas thrive in the shade along the stairs near Goodman Street. Rhododendrons-in a protected valley below the lookout-also have been fortified with additional plantings in recent years.
Many visitors continue to make the lilacs and the quieter corners of the park the main focus of their attention. But Rochester’s largest and longest-running festival offers plenty else to distract: arts and crafts vendors, food and entertainment.
The whole thing blasts off at 10:30 a.m., May 12, with the annual Lilac Parade down South and Highland avenues. Artists and craftsmen will be selling their handmade creations for the 15th year, also on the first weekend. Wine, Jazz ‘n’ Blues Day on Thursday, May 17, will include a farmers market with New York wine and food tastings. The ESL Lilac Stage will have free shows all week featuring well-known and promising musicians, including Mike Doughty, C.J. Chenier and Edgar Winters.
4/27/2007 (C) Rochester Business Journal