Why there are so many beautiful lilacs on Mackinac Island

Published on May 30th, 2018

Last updated on December 6th, 2022

The Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is a 10-day celebration held in June that kicks off every summer with a splash of floral beauty and fragrance. But why are there so many beautiful lilacs on Mackinac?

Well, the story of the island’s lilacs goes back much farther than the festival that began in 1949. Lilacs aren’t native to Mackinac, or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter. Instead, they were brought to the island, and the best guess is that they first arrived with the Hubbard family from New Hampshire, according to Jeff Young, a master gardener and University of Vermont instructor who serves as horticulturist for the island’s Lilac Festival.

European immigrants brought lilacs to New England and planted them near their farms for good luck. So, when the Hubbards moved to Mackinac and began farming on the west side of the island, they planted lilacs.

Some of the lilac stems near that farm, which later was developed into cottages in an area known as Hubbard’s Annex, are about 100 years old and are offspring of older stems that were also about 100 years old. So, it has been about 200 years since lilacs were brought to Mackinac. Young knows of no older or larger stems in the United States or Canada.

During the past two centuries, lilacs have flourished on the island. Though the plants aren’t native to Mackinac, they find good growing conditions in the island’s shallow, well-drained soil with a high pH level due to the underlying limestone. Adequate rainfall and a good hardening each winter have strengthened Mackinac’s lilacs to the point that they are the largest in the country – with some stems larger than two feet across at the base.

Horticulturists that visit Mackinac are amazed by the size of the lilacs because they don’t see them that big anywhere else.

As more people built homes on Mackinac in the late 1800s, they brought lilacs with them, too. Then, to attract more visitors to the island, the Lilac Festival was created after World War II. Residents, businesses and the state park planted lilacs everywhere.

Now, wherever you go on Mackinac, you see beautiful, flowering lilacs and enjoy the plant’s pleasing fragrance.

“You will not find a better setting of lilacs anywhere in the country because they’ve been built into everything,” Young said. “There’s nowhere you can go on the island where you’re not going to see them and enjoy them. It’s better than any botanical garden.”

Annual Mackinac Island Lilac Festival activities include the prestigious Taste of Mackinac culinary event, a horse-drawn grand parade, a costumed dog and pony parade, 10k run/walk, Lilac Festival queen coronation and more.

See all the events and the festival schedule here.