May 10, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

The un-lilacs 

The hidden botanical treasures of Highland Park

Enough with the lilacs!

We get it: They're lovely. They're delicate. They smell wonderful. We have tons of them. Many are the reasons that we have a massive festival dedicated to them every year.

But Rochesterain't called the FlowerCity for nothing. The area features much more than lilacs, especially Highland Park. The 155-acre arboretum designed by Frederick Law Olmstead --- the pioneering landscape architect who also designed New York City's Central Park --- is home to more than 6,000 different planet species, according to Tom Pollock, Monroe County's superintendent of horticulture.

In an anticipation of the thousands of people who will descend on Highland May 12-21 for the Lilac Festival, Pollock took us on a tour of the park to point out some of its hidden botanical treasures. Anybody can pick out a lilac at 40 paces. Here's your chance to learn about some of the more exotic plants, like the rubber tree, with its incredibly viscous sap, or the Japanese Katsura, which come fall turns bright orange and smells of slightly burned sugar. We also give props to some more well-known collections, like Highland's gorgeous magnolias and regal rhododendrons, which sometimes get overlooked because folks stop at smelling the... well, you know what we're talking about. And it's not roses.

1. Caucasian Wingnut

Location: Across Reservoir Drive from the Lamberton Conservatory, right near Poet's Corner.

The Wingnut might not look like much right now --- just a huge, craggy tree with silver-white bark set back among the narcissus. But in about three weeks you'll be able to see a peculiar formation of flowers and fruit on a tree you're not likely to find anywhere else in this state; the Wingnut, Pollock says, is rarely cultivated. If you look closely, you can already see the emergence of "chains" of flower buds, which will eventually become long strands of nuts with "wings" (hence the name). And the tree provides interesting views for weeks: the seeds should last until late July.

2. Magnolia collection

Location: Throughout the park, but clustered between the southern edge of the Reservoir and Highland Avenue.

There's nothing hidden about the magnolia's majesty --- Rochester is blessed to have many of the gorgeous, early-flowering trees. What's special about Highland's collection is that there are more than 28 different varieties, making it one of the most extensive and varied groupings of magnolias in the northeast. Look especially for the Yulan magnolia, a rarely cultivated variety with flowers that resemble tulips, and the Big-leaved magnolia, with waxy white flowers that are often more than 10 inches in diameter.

3. Tree Peony

Location: Just off the southern path between the magnolia collection and the barberry collection.

Highland's tree peony collection is a fairly recent addition, having been planted in the last three years. Currently, the plants look like little bushes stuck atop sticks in the ground, but in the next few weeks (hopefully by the end of the Lilac Fest) they'll bloom in "huge, saucer-like flowers that look like crepe paper," Pollock says. The colors vary from ruby reds to buttery yellows.

4. Louisiana Iris garden

Location: At the end of the magnolia collection, before the Japanese maples.

The iris garden was a gift to the park from one of our Sister Cities, Hamamatsu, Japan. It features all five original Louisiana varieties of irises --- a plant that has been hybridized like crazy since the 1920s, Pollock says, so finding all the original stock in one place is unusual. In mid-June the irises will flower, growing to waist or breast height and ranging in appearance from the "bearded" version to flowers more akin to daylilies.

5. Japanese Maple collection

Location: Throughout the park, but clustered along the southern slope of the reservoir.

Like magnolias, Japanese maple trees themselves aren't rare. They've become popular landscaping options, as their wildly varying foliage colors look exotic compared to our area's natural maples' golds, oranges, and reds. Pollock says he's proud of the park's diversity of Japanese maples, many of which are of the more ornamental variety and range in size, leaf shape, and color, from bright red to deep purple.

6. Rubber Tree

Location: Down the southern slope opposite the Japanese maples

This tree is off the beaten track, both literally and figuratively. It doesn't look like much to the naked eye. But if you break one of its leaves (and, um, please don't break its leaves), you'll notice that the sap that emerges forms fibers between the two halves and feels a bit like rubber cement. Pollock says you're unlikely to find this tree cultivated at all regionally, possibly even nationally.

7. Raisin Tree

Location: Just to the right of the Japanese maple collection on the reservoir's southern slope.

This bizarre tree doesn't actually produce raisins, which are, of course, just dried grapes. But it does put out round, yellow, grape-like fruits that then mature into puckered, raisin-looking berries. Pollock doesn't recommend eating them, however. In addition to that being against park rules, the berries are awfully bitter, he says. This oddity is also a rarity, and Pollock says you won't find many of them in the horticulture trade.

8. Japanese Katsura

Location: Off the trail just east of the Winter Garden, near the fence along Highland Avenue.

The Katsura is one of Pollock's favorite trees in the park, and it's easy to see why. First, it's enormous. Pollock estimates that it's at least 90 years old, since it was planted in 1919 and must have been several years old before planting. Children often play in the shade under its full canopy of round-ish leaves, he says. But the most stunning aspects of the Katsura won't emerge until fall, when its bright green foliage turns a radiant orange --- the color of Creamsicles, Pollock says --- and gives off a pleasant, burnt brown-sugar smell. This one is possibly the largest Katsura specimen in the state.

9. Rose Meadow

Location: Between the Weigelas and Honeysuckles, on the way to the Azalea-Rhododendron dell.

The Rose Meadow is special not for its plants, but for its lack of them. Pollock says that one of Frederick Law Olmstead's hallmarks was creating pastoral settings in the middle of his parks --- nice, open green spaces set off by a variety of flora on the borders. The Rose Meadow is a good example: its gently sloping lawn practically begs for a picnic set up, and a wide array of surrounding plants gives plenty to look at, from shrubs and bushes to a raisin tree at the top to, yes, a few roses in the flower beds.

10. Silver Bells

Location: In the midst of the lilac groves, near the corner of Highland Avenue and South Goodman Street.

You have to leave the walking path to see the Silver Bell trees, which live up to their name. Once the plant reaches maturity --- right around Lilac Fest, Pollock says --- its delicate, bell-shaped flowers will be silver white with pink streaks.

11. Viburnum

Location: Mixed in with the lilacs and Silver Bells

Lilacs won't be the only thing you smell in the park this spring. Viburnums are wonderfully fragrant plants (at least the species present in Highland Park), with scents that can range from lightly sweet to heavily perfumed.

12. Rhododendron Dell

Location: To the right of the reservoir, just off Pinetum Drive.

Rhododendrons are fairly common, but this collection in a pine-shaded alley still impresses with its number and variety of plants. A combination of both rhododendrons and azaleas, some of the bushes are already in breathtaking bloom, but many have a few weeks to go. The finicky plants require a lot of care: they need acidic soil, lots of drainage, partial sun, etc., and so new additions to the collection are fairly common. Also look for the Lily of the Valley bush, part of the same family but with a delightfully distinctive look.

Lilac Festival 2006

Flowers, crafts, cute kids up on a stage, Teddy Geiger: There's plenty to see and do at the 10-day-long Lilac Festival. Here's your chance to walk the gorgeous paths of Highland Park and see big-name music acts like Ben Lee, Steve Tyrell and the aforementioned Mr. Geiger, all up on the Lilac Stage. You can get the full festival schedule at, but here are the highlights broken down day by day.

Friday, May 12

Noon: Opening ceremony

7 p.m.: Ben Lee (Lilac Stage). The alt-pop Aussie is a real charmer in his live stage shows. Expect lots of bouncy, singable confections from his most recent album, Awake is the New Sleep.

Saturday, May 13

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Lilac Festival Arts & Crafts Show (corner of South and Highland avenues). More than 125 artists and craftmakers set up shop.

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Home and Yard Show (along Highland Avenue, near the corner of Highland and South). Get tips for how to make your garden look as good as Highland Park.

11 a.m.: Lilac Parade (travels down South Avenue from Science Parkway to Goodman Street). See the Rochester RazorSharks, clowns from Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, more marching bands than you can shake a stick at, and Lilac Festival Queen Cory Kleiman.

7 p.m.: Atlas (Lilac Stage).The regional party band celebrates 25 years of taking care of business, working for the weekend, etc.

Sunday, May 14

10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.: Lilac Festival Arts & Crafts Show (see Saturday, May 13).

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Home and Garden Show (see Saturday, May 13).

7 p.m.New Riders of the Purple Sage (Lilac Stage). Jam band legends will bring plenty of country-friend noodling.

Monday, May 15

7 p.m. Jody Watley (Lilac Stage). The R 'n' B chanteuse continues looking for real love.

Tuesday, May 16 (Latino Day)

5:30 p.m.: Luisito Rosario (Lilac Stage). The international salsa singer leads you in the rumba, salsa, and more.

7:15 p.m.: Tito Allen (Lilac Stage). Even more salsa sounds.

Wednesday, May 17 (Seniors Day)

7 p.m.: Richard Street (Lilac Stage). The former lead singer of The Temptations sings the hits from the good ol' days.

Thursday, May 18 (Jazz 'n Wine Day)

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Wine tastings and food sampling from New York wineries and more (Big Top Tent, near corner of Highland and Goodman).

Noon-7 p.m.: Farmers Market. (Corner of South and Highland avenues)

5 p.m.: Gala in the Park (Lamberton Conservatory). Raise funds for FOODLINK with an evening of food and wine (costs $60, call 328-3880).

7 p.m.: Steve Tyrell (Lilac Stage). The jazz singer gives voice to the standards.

Friday, May 19

7 p.m.: Uncle Plum (Lilac Stage). Local rockers play for the hometown crowd.

Saturday, May 20 (WBEE Country Day)

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Art in the Park.

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Home and Yard Show (see Saturday, May 13).

7 p.m.: Megan Mullins (Lilac Stage). Musical prodigy brings bluegrass and more.

Sunday, May 21

8 a.m.: Medved Lilac 5K & 10K Family Fun Run (Cornell Cooperative Extension, Highland Avenue). 5K race starts at 8 a.m., 10K at 9 a.m., registration at 7 a.m.

10 a.m.-6 p.m.: Art in the Park.

10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.: Home and Yard Show (see Saturday, May 13).

7 p.m.: Teddy Geiger (Lilac Stage) Oh, you know you want it.

Parking information: It's never a picnic, that's for sure. Don't park on side streets unless you want a ticket or your car towed. On the weekends, park for free at MonroeCommunity College (1000 East Henrietta Road) and take an RTS shuttle for $1 to the festival. Weekdays you can park for free in marked festival lots on Goodman Street (south of Highland Avenue) and Elmwood Avenue (east of South Avenue). For more information go to

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