Around this time each year Rochester explodes with color. The Flower City boasts the blooms of flowering trees like magnolias and dogwoods, the bright hues of pansies and tulips, and most recognized, the dazzling purples, pinks, and whites of the lilacs. Rochesterians have embraced this botanical display with great celebration for decades. Let me take you back in time to the start of Rochester’s journey as the Flower City.
A large group of people walking along the path in Highland Park enjoying the lilacs. Ca. 1930
In 1830 a twenty-four year old William A. Reynolds, son of Abelard Reynolds, started his first seed business in Rochester. A young German horticulturist named George emigrated the United States and began work under Reynolds as foreman of the Rochester Seed Store, later purchasing the nursery portion the business. Unfortunately the nursery proved unsuccessful and Ellwanger was forced to start over. In 1840 he decided to try again, this time going into business with Patrick Barry. Together they co-founded Ellwanger & Barry Nursery, later known as Mount Hope Nursery.
An exterior view of the Ellwanger & Barry office. Ca. 1921
An automobile is parked behind a large elm tree, one of two remnants of the
original forest still standing on the Mount Hope Nursery property. Ca. 1921
Around the same time several other nurseries and seed companies were popping up all around Rochester including The Vick Seed Company, Harris Seed Company, and Crosman Seed Company, Incorporated. These companies along with others outside of Rochester represented the beginning of the commercial seed industry in the United States. In order to sell their product, the companies created beautifully illustrated catalogues. The catalogues would be published in early winter for eager gardeners to plan their spring plantings.
Seed catalogues from Mount Hope Nurseries (1900),
Harris Seeds (1933), and James Vick’s Sons (1905).
Rochester was known for some of the largest seed companies in the world and for a time Mount Hope Nursery was the largest company of its’ kind in the world, reaching 500 acres by 1859. In 1888 George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry made their biggest mark on Rochester history when they endowed, to the Rochester community, 20 acres of their nursery’s land. The endowment was given on the condition that the city would hire a landscape engineer to create a premier arboretum including numerous specimens and rare plants from the Mount Hope Nursery.
An aerial view of Highland Park showing the reservoir and the Children’s Pavilion
with Highland Avenue visible to the left of the reservoir. Ca. 1928
Designed by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Highland Park became one of the nation’s first municipal arboretums. Olmsted is considered the father of landscape architecture and is well-known for having co-designed Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Preferring parks with features that felt as if nature had put it there herself, Olmsted designed Highland Park with a natural and flowing aesthetic. Horticulturist John Dunbar later added 20 varieties of lilacs descending from the native Balkan Mountain flowers brought to North America by early colonists. These lilacs became the highlight of the park and the foundation for the Lilac Festival.
Visitors to Highland Park pause on a path among the rhododendrons
with the rolling countryside seen in the distance. Ca. 1913
In May of 1898, on a beautiful Sunday, a spontaneous festival broke out when more than 3,000 people gathered to see the resplendent display of blooms from Rochester’s first lilacs. The city formalized the event and created what came to be known as Lilac Sunday. By 1908 over 25,000 people came by foot, train, and trolley to view the enchanting display of flowers and listen to springtime concerts. In 1909 an additional 40 acres was gifted to the city providing recreational space for the ever growing crowds. As automobiles became more widely available, the park saw visitors in the tens of thousands by the 1920s during “Lilac Time.”
A large crowd is gathered in Highland Park to see the Lilac Queen and her maid of honor. Ca. 1930
The Great Depression placed the city in a difficult financial position, unable to afford to pay organizers. Volunteers stepped in to keep the celebration going and by the 1940s crowds at the Lilac Festival had expanded to over 100,000 people. Now, one of the largest festivals of its kind in North America, the Rochester Lilac Festival draws over 500,000 people from all over the world. A free ten-day event with two concert stages, a televised parade, a juried arts and crafts show, and so much more.
A large crowd is gathered in Highland Park near the reservoir to see the
parade of the Lilac Queen and her court. Ca. 1930
There so many delightful features to discover at every corner in Highland Park. The scent of over 1,200 lilac shrubs representing over 500 varieties of gorgeous white, purple, and pink plumes travels across the breeze on a warm May afternoon. Visitors are enchanted by collections of Japanese Maples and barberry bushes and 35 varieties of magnolias. Take a skip through the rock garden with dwarf evergreens or take a stroll through the 700 varieties of rhododendron azaleas, mountain laurel and Andromeda, horse chestnuts, spring bulbs, wildflowers. You will not be disappointed with the views. A breathtaking oval carpet of 10,000 pansy plants laid in a new pattern each year will surely awe any passerby. Transport yourself to other ecosystems in the Lamberton Conservatory where lavish floral displays that could not survive in Rochester’s climate flourish.
Visitors stand in the valley of rhododendrons in Highland Park.
The shrubs are in full bloom and a large shade tree overhangs the path. Ca. 1913
A variety of cactus fill a room at the Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park. Ca. 1922.
Two women are strolling along a wide concrete path in Highland Park past rhododendrons in full bloom.
In the foreground a photographer stands beside his camera gazing at the flowering shrubs. Ca. 1925
Visitors to Highland Park admire the pansy bed featuring thirteen varieties of pansies. Ca. 1916
Rochester is lucky to have such beautiful parks with such an amazing history to celebrate. When you go out to Highland Park this Lilac Festival take a moment to smell the delicate scent of the lilacs and feel the sun on your face. Enjoy the spectacular beauty that has taken over a century to create.
Two women with parasols are walking along a path in Highland Park next to lilacs in full bloom. Ca. 1914
All black and white images are from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY. For more information on this and other RMSC collections, visit collections.rmsc.org.