Is Rochester slipping as nation's lilac leader?
Rochester's annual celebration of the lilac kicked off on Friday. So far, rain has put a damper on the 10-day festival. But the free event usually draws hundreds of thousands of people.
So why are lilacs such a big deal in Rochester?
Beverly Gibson, the horticulture expert at the Landmark Society of Western New York, knows why - even though she usually steers clear of the festival itself.
"Most of my friends who are horticulturalists visit the lilacs before the festival or after the festival," Gibson says with a chuckle. "Because you end up smelling sausages rather than lilacs!"
Gibson says many local enthusiasts like herself view the food, music, vendors as a distraction from the main event: the 600-plus lilac varieties that line Highland Park's gentle slopes.
"People come in busloads to see the lilacs," says Gibson. "It does put Rochester on the map as a center for lilacs."
Lineage of lilac men
The story of Rochester as the top dog of the lilac world begins in 1892, when assistant parks superintendent John Dunbar brought the first lilacs to Highland Park.
"He started hybridizing lilacs," Gibson says. "He came up with [the] series ... there was a presidents series, there was an inventors series, there was a famous generals series."
Before long, there were lilacs named for Abe Lincoln, Thomas Edison, General Sherman. And thus a lilac research and development cluster was born.
The first official lilac festival was held in 1908, and for the next few decades Highland Park continued to flex its horticultural muscle.
But the next big figure in Rochester lilac lore didn't emerge until mid-century, in the form of master hybridizer Dick Fenicchia.
"They're all hybrids of the Rochester lilac"
Fenicchia is responsible for one of the most famous lilacs to bloom out of Rochester: the family named for the city itself. Fenicchia looms so large over lilac history that even though he's now deceased, there's a memorial Facebook page in his honor, where you can watch him show off his creations in a 1993 video.
During his tenure as Monroe County's superintendent of horticulture in the '60s and '70s, Fenicchia hybridized dozens of lilac varieties. He won awards for creating the Rochester lilac. His "General Eisenhower" was even planted at the White House.
But times change, and Mark Quinn, the current superintendent of horticulture, says creating new lilacs is simply no longer a priority at Highland Park.
"We find that it's [logistically] and economically the best thing for us to do, to purchase in lilacs that have been [bred] in the private industry for our collection," says Quinn.
Quinn says they're still doing some work to create new varieties ("Martha Stewart" was named in 1995), but the years-long process just isn't a focus any more.
And when it was, he says it was mainly the individual efforts of John Dunbar and Dick Fenicchia that sustained it.
Heir to the throne?
In nearby Victor, Ted Collins motors around his expansive lilac nursery on a trusty golf cart. He says if some of his grandsons take on the business, maybe one day it'll be like a miniature Highland Park, with its over 300 varieties.
"With only 15 acres we won't measure up, but it's a lot of fun," says Collins.
The lifelong Rochesterian is known to many as Doc Lilac. And his goal is to make sure that Rochester stays on top of its lilac game.
But without a focus on developing new varieties, he says he's concerned that Highland might be losing its grip on the lilac throne.
"Even though the festival numbers are increasing all the time," says Collins, "I have a suspicion that there is less money available and I'm afraid that if we aren't careful, we'll lose our ranking as the lilac capital of the world."
"We hold the title"
That's according to horticulture superintendent Quinn.
Quinn says Rochester remains strong, even if it's not developing new lilacs at the clip it once was.
"I mean everybody [says], 'Oh, Hamilton thinks they've got the best, or Seattle thinks they've got the best,'" says Quinn. "It's arguable, but as far as I'm concerned, this is the best collection and we have not slipped."
Doc Lilac hopes Quinn is right. He has a vision of how prominent he'd like the flower be, and it's ambitious to say the least.
"I'd like to see people fly over Monroe County when the lilacs are in bloom and see nothing but purple and white and pink and blue as far as you can see."