Mackinac Island Lilac Festival Celebrates the Blossoms Each June

When the long, cold winter and cool spring finally ends, Mackinac lilacs show their joy by transforming the island into a fairyland of blossoms.  Cotton candy–colored tinkerbelles tempt from behind white picket fences. Big bold creamy Madame Lemoine lilacs strut next to a fluttery pink and white Beauty of Moscow in Ste. Anne’s churchyard. Down at the marina, where voyageurs working the Great Lakes fur trade once pulled their canoes, blue President Lincolns wave next to white Betsy Rosses. A froth that includes double pink Elizabeths and dark purple Monge spills out over the rolling green lawn at Marquette Park. And the gauzy backdrop to them all: the anything-but-bourgeois, lilac-colored common lilac.

The island is home to all 23 lilac species, some 400 varieties and thousands of individual plants. In June—and even into July in the case of late-blooming varieties—these flowers radiate their perfume into the windy Straits, where it melts into the aroma of warm fudge wafting from Main Street’s famous fudge shops and fresh horse apples (cars are banned on Mackinac Island) to create a signature Mackinac Island scent.

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Lilac blossoms are ethereal and the trunks are leggy—lilacs grow taller on the island than anywhere else in the country. Lilac expert Jeff Young (known in lilac circles as the “rock star of lilacs,” according to the director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, Mary McGuire Slevin) visits the island each June during the 10-day Lilac Festival to lead informative lilac walks. As he tours groups past one impressive specimen after another, Young invariably refers to Mackinac Island as the Lilac Garden of Eden. A high point of the walk is at historic Grand Cottage, where an old common lilac measures the full three stories of the home’s federalist-style white clapboard facade.

Mackinac lilacs live to ancient ages, and they have the girth to prove it. A while back Trish Martin, owner of the island’s Bogan Lane Inn, who has a master’s degree in botany, worked with a lilac expert from Canada’s Royal Botanical Garden on a stem-boring project. The team found a number of island lilacs as old as 130 years—and of course they could have come from an even older Mackinac plant.

For all the heavenly habitat-to-genus match, lilacs aren’t indigenous to the island. Syringa is native to Eastern Europe and Asia, and wasn’t brought to North America until the early 1700s.  For years, largely due to their great size, it was believed that Mackinac’s lilacs were among the very first in North America, possibly coming to the island via French Jesuit missionaries in the 1600s. But no one much believes anymore that a black robe remembered to pack along a lilac sucker with his cross and Bible.

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