Located in the Mount Hope Preservation District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Monroe County’s Highland Park was the dream of George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry, two leading Rochester citizens and prominent nurserymen. Owners of the world-famous Mt. Hope Nursery, they endowed the community with 20 acres of their nursery’s land and enlisted the help of noted landscape engineer Frederick Law Olmsted to develop the park. The relationship with Mr. Olmsted lasted into the twentieth century and today Highland Park has grown to comprise 150 acres of rolling hills filled with botanical delights, magnificent gardens and the largest collection of lilacs in the United States.
HISTORY OF THE ROCHESTER LILAC FESTIVAL
Back in 1890, Rochester’s finest horticulturalists planted several thousand flowering shrubs on the south slope of Highland Park. Imagine their delight on a sunny Sunday in May 1898 when a spontaneous festival broke out in the park! More than 3,000 people flocked to see the magnificent display of blooms, especially the bright purples, whites, and pinks of the park’s first lilac gardens.
The city moved quickly to formalize the event, and Lilac Sunday was born. Concerts were added in 1901, and by 1908, the festival attracted more than 25,000 people, arriving on trains and trolleys from all over the area. The following year, a gift of 40 additional acres allowed park officials to create recreational space for the growing crowds. As more and more families owned automobiles, people began to attend from outside Monroe County and the 1920s saw tens of thousands of visitors every year at “lilac time.”
When the city could not afford to pay organizers during the Great Depression, in true Rochester spirit, volunteers stepped up to keep the cherished festival going — and their efforts made the free event grow. By the 1940s, crowds expanded to as many as 100,000 people.
The Rochester Lilac Festival is the largest event of its kind in North America, drawing more than 500,000 people annually to the ten-day free event. (Prior to Covid shutdown in 2020). Two concert stages feature more than 135 performances, including headline entertainment showcasing top artists in rock, reggae, dance music, R&B and more. The festival’s jam-packed lineup includes a televised parade; a juried arts and crafts show featuring the work of 160 artists, makers, designers and craftspeople; a Wine and Craft Beer Expo, a USA Track & Field Certified 10K and 5K — and the biggest stars of the show: the thousands of spectacular lilacs blooming on the south slope of Highland Park.
From the Pinetum, stroll down Reservoir Road to the newly renovated and restored Lamberton Conservatory, a highlight of every visit to the park. Inside, six areas simulate faraway climates, from the Tropical Dome to the Desert Environment, and include a space for orchids, a display of house plants, and even a koi pond, While you’re inside, watch for the wandering quail who make the conservatory their home.
THE SWEET AROMA OF LILACS
With its star status of presenting the largest lilac collection in the Unites States, a visit to Highland Park offers a rare opportunity to experience the incredible beauty and intense fragrance of more than 500 varieties of lilacs on 1200 plants. The double whites could be Madame Lemoine or Miss Ellen Willmott, two of the most popular and fragrant of the Lemoine hybrids. Pocahontas has a nice rounded shape and a dark purple flower. Fenelon, a fragrant pink, is another favorite, and the earliest to bloom in Rochester.
From the multi-petal Rochester Lilac to the early blooming single white Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower, which has huge clusters of sky-blue flowers and was planted at the White House in 1969, there’s no shortage of rare discoveries to be found among the famous lilac gardens.
THE PANSY BED
With a new walkway encircling this garden, the spectacular hand-planted pansy bed features 10,000 plants in an oval floral “carpet.” Each year the pansies are positioned in a new design, making a stop at the pansy bed an annual tradition for area residents and visitors.
THE RHODODENDRON/AZALEA GARDEN
As you follow the winding walkway through the eastern end of the lilac garden, you’ll find your way up the gentle slope to another of Highland’s many surprises: the spectacular grove of rhododendrons and azaleas. As many as 700 varieties of these showy plants are clustered here, alongside mountain laurel, Andromeda, horse chestnuts, spring bulbs and wildflowers.
A WORLD CLASS ARBORETUM
Across the road from the rhododendrons and azaleas, you’ll find the Pinetum (pronounced pine-AY-tum), a superb collection of 300 species and varieties of conifers from the United States and around the world. Visitors to the park throughout the spring also enjoy the Japanese maple collection, 35 varieties of sweet-smelling magnolias, beautiful tree peonies, crabapple and flowering dogwood trees, a barberry collection, a rock garden with dwarf evergreens, and a large variety of leafy shade trees.
At the entrance to the park at South Avenue and Reservoir Drive, the annual bloom of the tulips provides a kaleidoscope of brilliant color.
Download the Highland Park Map to begin planning your visit through the gardens of Monroe County’s Highland Park.