Why there are so many beautiful lilacs on Mackinac Island

The Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is a 10-day celebration held in June that kicks off every summer with a splash of floral beauty and fragrance. Since the 1940s, the event has highlighted the incredible number of lilacs and the giant size of the stems that have grown on the popular northern Michigan travel destination that’s hailed as the No. 1 Best Island in the Continental U.S. and the Best Summer Travel Destination.

The festival also raises an interesting question: Why are there so many beautiful lilacs on Mackinac Island?

A horse-drawn carriage passes by a beautiful bloom of lilacs on a Mackinac Island street

The history of Mackinac Island lilacs

The story of Mackinac Island’s lilacs goes back much farther than the festival that began in 1949. Lilacs aren’t native to Mackinac Island nor anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter. Instead, they were brought to Mackinac Island.

The earliest documentation of lilacs on Mackinac Island comes from an 1861 journal entry by the writer Henry David Thoreau, who visited the summer before he died of tuberculosis. Another influx of the flowers came when the Hubbard family moved to Mackinac Island from New Hampshire, according to Jeff Young, a master gardener and University of Vermont instructor who has served as horticulturist for the Lilac Festival. European immigrants brought lilacs to New England and planted them near their farms for good luck. So, when the Hubbards moved to Mackinac Island and began farming, they planted lilacs.

Some of the lilac stems near that farm, which later was developed into Mackinac Island cottages in an area known as Hubbard’s Annex, are about 100 years old and are offspring of older stems that were also about 100 years old. So, it has been about 200 years since lilacs were brought to Mackinac Island, making them the oldest in the country.

During the past two centuries, lilacs have flourished on Mackinac Island. They find good growing conditions in the shallow, well-drained soil that has a high pH level due to the underlying limestone. Adequate rainfall and a good hardening each winter have strengthened Mackinac Island’s lilacs to the point that they are the largest in the country – with some stems larger than two feet across at the base. Horticulturists that visit Mackinac Island are amazed by the size of the lilacs because they don’t see them that big anywhere else.

A young woman smells the sweet scent of lilacs on a particularly large stem on Michigan's Mackinac Island

The growth of lilacs on Mackinac Island

As more people built homes on Mackinac Island in the late 1800s, they brought lilacs with them, too. Then, to attract more visitors, the Lilac Festival was created after World War II. Residents, businesses and Mackinac Island State Park planted lilacs everywhere.

Now, wherever you go on Mackinac Island, you see beautiful, flowering lilacs and can enjoy the plant’s pleasing fragrance.

“You will not find a better setting of lilacs anywhere in the country because they’ve been built into everything,” Young said. “There’s nowhere you can go on Mackinac Island where you’re not going to see them and enjoy them. It’s better than any botanical garden.”

Annual Mackinac Island Lilac Festival activities include a 10k run/walk, a festival queen coronation, a horse-drawn grand parade and much more. See all the events and this year’s Mackinac Island Lilac Festival schedule here.

A gorgeous pink lilac bloom on Michigan's Mackinac Island, home of the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival

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