Sunshine warming your face.
Gulls squawking while flying by.
The sweet smell of lilacs in the air.
Ah, it’s springtime on Mackinac Island.
Take a deep breath in and you’ll find the smell of lilacs take you to a special place, a special person, a special time. Lilacs seem to have that effect. And they’re extra special here on Mackinac Island.
Not only is there a 10-day festival celebrating all things lilacs and more than 250 kinds of lilacs on Mackinac Island, but the lilacs you see today are from the same lilac plants that were here over 200 years ago.
The rich history and importance of lilacs is documented in a new book Lilacs: A Fortnight of Fragrance on Mackinac Island. Written by lifelong Mackinac Island summer resident Sue Allen with master gardener Jeff “The Lilac Man” Young, who gives in-depth walking tours and planting seminars during the annual Lilac Festival, and photography by Jen Wohletz from publisher Mackinac Memories, along with guest contributors, Lilacs shows just how big of an impact lilacs have on this little Island.
BRIEF HISTORY OF LILACS ON MACKINAC ISLAND
Although lilacs are not native to the U.S., 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 David Thoreau that reads, “Apple in bloom and lilacs.” Harbour View Inn has the oldest known lilac on Mackinac Island and can be seen today!
MACKINAC ISLAND IS HOME TO SOME OF THE OLDEST AND LARGEST LILACS IN THE WORLD
Regardless of how they got here, 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 the 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 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 DC during cherry blossom time, Evangeline “Ling” Horn and Stella King came up with Mackinac Island Lilac Day on June 20th, 1948. It featured a parade and celebration for Mackinac Island’s love for lilacs. The following year, Lilac Day became a festival and featured the first Lilac Queen and court.
Today, the Lilac Festival is a 10-day celebration in June, bookended 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 and celebrate that same love for lilacs that started the festival 73 years ago.
Events vary 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 competition, and of course the Grand Parade through downtown Mackinac Island. Unfortunately, the Lilac Festival had to go virtual in 2020 due to Covid-19 and will have some modifications in 2021 as well. Be sure to check the Lilac Festival page for the most up-to-date information.
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 for obvious reasons, however, with such a wide variety of species on the Island you’re sure to see them in some capacity, especially because there are early bloomers and late bloomers. Even if you don’t make it to see them in June, their beauty can be appreciated any time of the year. Their sheer size is something to marvel and the warped trunks and twisted bark tell a story from ages ago, a special story that we still celebrate today.