Sunshine warming your face. Gulls squawking by. The sweet smell of lilacs in the air.
Take a deep breath and you’ll find that the scent of lilacs takes you to a special time in your life. Maybe to a special place or a special person. Lilacs have that effect. And on Mackinac Island, lilacs are extra special.
Not only are there more than 250 kinds of lilacs on Mackinac Island, but many of the lilacs you see today are from the same stems that were here more than 200 years ago. No wonder there’s an annual 10-day Mackinac Island Lilac Festival celebrating all things lilacs!
The rich history and importance of lilacs is documented in the book Lilacs: A Fortnight of Fragrance on Mackinac Island. Written by lifelong Mackinac Island summer resident Sue Allen and master gardener Jeff “The Lilac Man” Young, with photography by Jen Wohletz from publisher Mackinac Memories, Lilacs shows just how big of an impact lilacs have on Mackinac Island.
BRIEF HISTORY OF LILACS ON MACKINAC ISLAND
Although lilacs are not native to the United States, they have thrived on Mackinac Island. It is thought that the tough and sturdy lilacs were brought over land and sea in the luggage of Dutch and French immigrants.
There are varying stories of when the first lilac was planted on Mackinac Island. Some say it was the Hubbard family who came from New Hampshire, where lilacs were so popular they became the state flower. They planted them on their farm on the west side of Mackinac Island, known today as Hubbard’s Annex. However, the earliest mention of lilacs is from an 1861 journal entry by Henry David Thoreau that reads, “Apple in bloom and lilacs.” Harbour View Inn has the oldest known lilac on Mackinac Island and it can be seen still today!
MACKINAC ISLAND HAS SOME OF THE OLDEST AND LARGEST LILACS IN THE WORLD
Regardless of how lilacs got to Mackinac Island, it’s safe to say they have thrived. Some of the largest and oldest lilacs in the world are found on Mackinac Island and continue to amaze experts. The cool weather, lake breezes, and limestone soil with a high pH make Mackinac Island ideal for growing.
With more than 300 plants throughout the Island, you’ll notice the large trunks twisted and gnarled, producing spectacular sights. In June, some of the oldest lilacs reach 18 feet high when they bloom. To see an abundance of lilacs, look no further than Marquette Park. It has over 115 lilac plants and 75 species.
MACKINAC ISLAND LILAC FESTIVAL: A CHERISHED TRADITION
Inspired by the parades in Washington D.C. during cherry blossom time, Evangeline “Ling” Horn and Stella King came up with Mackinac Island Lilac Day on June 20, 1948. The special occasion featured a parade and celebration of Mackinac Island’s love for lilacs. The following year, Lilac Day became a festival and featured the first Lilac Queen and court.
Today, the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is a 10-day celebration in June, book-ended with two weekends of fun and activities. People travel from all over the world to attend the beloved festival and experience Mackinac Island in bloom, celebrating that same love for lilacs that started the festival more than three-quarters of a century ago.
Festival events vary from year to year but some of the favorites are the Lilac Queen coronation, family activities at Windermere Point, a 10K run and walk, lilac poster contest and, of course, the Grand Parade through downtown Mackinac Island. Be sure to check the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival page for the most up-to-date information.
WHEN TO SEE MACKINAC ISLAND LILACS AT THEIR PEAK
If seeing lilacs in bloom on Mackinac Island is on your bucket list, the best time to visit is June. It’s hard to say an exact date. However, with such a wide variety of lilac species on Mackinac Island, including some that are early bloomers and some that are late bloomers, you’re sure to see peak bloom during that month. Even if you don’t make it to see the lilacs in June, their beauty can be appreciated any time of the year. Their sheer size is something to marvel at and the warped trunks and twisted bark tell a story from ages ago, a special story that Mackinac Island celebrates still today.
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