Appreciating our lilacs, in 7 photos and 10 facts

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With the Rochester Lilac Festival now underway, about 500,000 people are expected to make their way through our city’s most storied event over a 10-day period. Unlike its beginnings—when some 3,000 people gathered in Highland Park in 1898 to smell the lilacs that had been planted by famed horticulturist John Dunbar—today’s Lilac Festival offers visitors much more than just the opportunity to smell and gaze at flowers.

In fact, given the great live music, excited crowds, endless food options (funnel cakes anyone?) and the chance to spend time in the craft beer garden (or, if one prefers, to have a Sangria Slushee), festivalgoers can almost be forgiven for forgetting to make their way over to the lilacs. Almost.

Yet the lilac is more than just a namesake for a festival. With seven photos (taken on the second day of this year’s festival) and 10 interesting facts, we delve into why we should appreciate these beautiful and fragrant symbols of renewal and love.

Lilacs are varied and long-lasting. There are over 1,000 different varieties of lilacs (more than 500 of these varieties can be found at Highland Park). And lilac trees can range in size from 6 feet to 30 feet in height. They can live for over 100 years.

Like Rochesterians, lilacs can endure a tough winter. While lilacs often grow in temperate climates and appear quite delicate, lilac trees are much tougher than they look. Some varieties can survive in minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lilacs are useful for more than just their beauty. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, hand cream and soaps. And the wood from lilac trees can be made into musical instruments and knife handles. Lilacs are even edible and can be used in mixed drinks. In spas and in alternative medicine, lilacs are often used in aromatherapy. And speaking of medical applications, a 2004 study found that the inability to identify the smell of a lilac could predict the future development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Temperatures affect both the bloom time and smell of lilacs. Lilacs bloom in late spring or early summer. And when the spring is warmer, the bloom comes earlier. Generally, the bloom lasts for only about three weeks, which is among the shortest compared to other flowers. Spring temperatures also affect the smell of a lilac, with warm and cold springs producing nuanced differences in scent.

Lilacs were early “immigrants” to America. Lilacs originally appeared in Eastern Europe and Asia, and were brought to the American colonies in the 17th century. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated lilacs in their gardens and wrote about lilacs in their journals.

Lilacs have been featured prominently in the arts. In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Walt Whitman wrote a poem called “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” as an elegy to the fallen president. In the visual arts, both Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet produced paintings featuring lilacs. A lesser known but equally beautiful painting called “The Time of the Lilacs” was done by 19th century artist Sophie Gengembre Anderson. And in classical music, Sergei Rachmaninov composed a short piano piece called “Lilacs,” seemingly to symbolize young love (here is his performance of it the year before he died).

Lilacs can symbolize multiple things. Different colors represent different meanings. Purple lilacs symbolize first love (they also have the strongest scent), while white lilacs represent young innocence. In the Victorian Age, widows would sometimes wear lilacs, as they were a symbol of an old love. In Russian folklore, it was believed that holding lilacs over a newborn would bring wisdom to the child. In the United States, lilacs are the flower for an eighth wedding anniversary.

The etymology of “lilac.” The word lilac comes from the Persian word for flower: “lilaq.” The lilac is also sometimes nicknamed the “Queen of Shrubs.” And even though lilacs come in a variety of colors, the color “lilac” is somewhere between pale violet and light purple (the most common color of lilac flowers).

Lilacs play a part in Greek mythology. The story involves Pan—the god of fields and forests—and a beautiful young nymph named Syringa (which is the botanical name of lilacs). Pan became enamored by Syringa’s physical beauty and would chase her throughout the forests. To escape from Pan, Syringa turned herself into a lilac bush.

We are not the only place that celebrates lilacs. Rochester is not alone in having a lilac festival. Other festivals take place in Boston, Lombard (Illinois), Mackinac Island (Michigan), Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) and Spokane (Washington). The lilac is also the official flower of New Hampshire, chosen because it represented the “hardy” character of its state’s people. Still, Rochester is considered by most to be the world’s lilac capital, which seems appropriate for a “Flower City.”

2 thoughts on “Appreciating our lilacs, in 7 photos and 10 facts

  1. When Ruth Moody of the Wailin’ Jennys performed with her own band at the Auburn Public Theater Tuesday evening, among the songs she played was this one: “The Spell of the Lilac Bloom.” It drew a shout-out from the audience about the Lilac Festival. You won’t find the song on any of her recordings (yet), but can see her perform it with the Jennys here:

  2. And, on the north side of Highland, the Ellwanger Barry nursery was the largest grower of flowering shrubs in the country, hence the name Flower City, a positive twist on Flour City. Flour because our original tech base was Flour mills driven by the millrace at High Falls. Highland is also a world famous arboretum with an extensive collection of unusual trees.

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