ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — In just a matter of a few days, more than 500 varieties of lilacs (syringa) will turn into “show stars” at Rochester’s iconic Highland Park.
And while the 2021 Lilac Festival will look a lot different than Lilac Festivals in the past due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that will not change is the attraction these beautiful blooms have to visitors of Highland Park.
In the past, people have ventured to Rochester from far and wide just to admire the beauty of these flowers and, of course, their sweet fragrance (Did you know there’s even a lilac perfume?!).
The big question that comes up every year from those looking to visit the park is: “Will the lilacs be ready to put on a great show in time for the festival?”
It’s a question that’s been asked for a long time. The celebration of these flowers started in 1898. At the time, the occasion was called “Lilac Sunday”, a one day opportunity for families to stroll through the park, and admire the beauty of these blooms. This then turned into the Lilac Festival in 1908, which according to the Monroe County Parks Department, makes it the longest-running festival of its kind in North America!
Twelve hundred shrubs representing 500 varieties of lilacs are on display at Highland Park, many of which were actually developed right here in Rochester. The collection is the largest of its kind at any single place!
This year, the festival will break with tradition and will take place over three consecutive weekends, instead of two. May 7-9, May 14-16, and May 21-23.
Despite the break with tradition, this is good news for a few reasons.
Firstly, it means that this year, you have more time to wander through the park to check out the beautiful sights and take in that fantastic floral fragrance.
Secondly, it means you can potentially see MORE varieties of lilacs in bloom. Remember, there are 500 different kinds of lilacs at Highland Park. Each kind has a slightly different hardiness, which means the lilacs will be at various stages of bloom depending upon previous weather conditions.
Last, but far from least, the Lilac Festival is timed out purposefully to coincide with the lilacs “peak bloom” at Highland Park. Based upon data from the Monroe County Parks Department, over the last 16 years, the average date for peak bloom is approximately May 13th. That date is right in the heart of this year’s Festival!
While lilacs are considered VERY hardy (which is why they do well in temperate zones), given just the right weather conditions, they can not only just survive, they can also THRIVE! So, just what kind of weather do lilacs thrive in and has this year cooperated so far?
WHAT LILACS LIKE
According to a number of expert gardeners, even though the lilac bush is hardy, it takes just the right combination of conditions to get the perfect bloom.
Lilacs like six to eight hours of sunshine per day. They don’t like wet soil. Despite that, they do take well to the cold, which makes them ideal for our climate zone!
Remember the winter of 2015 and the extreme cold in Rochester? It featured some of the coldest weather on record in Rochester! Three days of double digit subzero low temperatures in February had many concerned the lilacs would be damaged.
I toured the park that year with horticulturalist Mark Quinn from the Monroe County Parks Department, and was surprised to see just how well the bushes held up to the extreme conditions. The bushes passed winter’s extreme test with flying colors!
WEATHER CONDITIONS THIS WINTER AND SPRING AND THE LILACS
The two graphs above show temperatures over the meteorological winter and the spring so far.
Each month of the meteorological winter this year was warmer than normal with the exception of February.
While April’s temperatures in Rochester averaged only fractionally above normal, March averaged five degrees warmer than normal per day ranking it among the top 20 warm Marches in Rochester weather history. Nothing extreme to see here as far as temperature goes!
Lilacs can endure bouts of severe cold. There wasn’t much of that at all this winter, and certainly nothing like what we saw just six years ago back in 2015, so their dormancy period was relatively easy.
As far as precipitation goes, lilacs do well during the growing season with about once inch of water per week.
As you can see here, we’ve been far from wet this spring. We’ve just been making up for some of the very dry weather of March, so the ground is certainly not wet to the point that the lilacs would see their blooms stunted, which is what would happen if there was too much rain.
Even more important to the strength of the lilac blooms is the amount of sunshine. Lilacs LOVE full sun! According to data from the National Weather Service in Buffalo, there were more fair or partly cloudy days in Rochester in March and April than there were cloudy days. That’s a great recipe for Rochester’s iconic flower to thrive.
HIGHLAND PARK RIGHT NOW
So what can you expect to see at Highland Park right now? The cooler weather that’s in the forecast will slow the progress of the flowers a bit, but as you can see, there are some nice blooms already.
UPDATE: Mark Quinn, horticulturalist for the Monroe County Parks Department, got in touch with me this afternoon about the status of this year’s blooms. Here’s what he had to say.
“The weather has made this a tough prediction this year. We initially thought they would be early but we are seeing cooler temperatures than normal. This seems to be holding them back. At this time we are at about 30 percent in bloom. My best guess looking at the weather predictions is a May 15th peak.”
It’s clear from the photo just above that the early season “double magenta” blooms are doing just fine and looking great!
The bottom line here: Yes, the lilacs will be ready for you when you make the hike to Highland Park. With thousands of bushes and hundreds of varieties at different stages of bloom, you’re definitely not going to be disappointed by this year’s show.