2009-06-13 / Top News

Curator Shares Advice for Mackinac Lilacs

"Here on the Island, the mentality is 'old.' So they cut the new growth and keep the [old] stems. That's what I'm trying to break them of." - Jeff Young, lilac curator
By Kerri Jo Molitor

The lilac that blooms purple with white edging is called "Sensation." Jeff Young, who leads a number of "Walk and Talk with Lilacs" programs throughout the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival, shows a group of tourists what the flower looks like Tuesday, June 9. The lilac that blooms purple with white edging is called "Sensation." Jeff Young, who leads a number of "Walk and Talk with Lilacs" programs throughout the Mackinac Island Lilac Festival, shows a group of tourists what the flower looks like Tuesday, June 9. The lilacs on Mackinac Island are old, and some of them are really old. While most of them are around 60 years old, there are a few lilacs closing in on 200 years. The older lilacs are a source of pride for the residents and a source of fascination for the tourists, but older lilacs can mean unhealthy lilacs, according to lilac curator Jeff Young.

"Here on the Island, the mentality is 'old,'" Mr. Young said. "So they cut the new growth and keep the [old] stems. That's what I'm trying to break them of."

Mr. Young has attended the Lilac Festival on the Island for six years. He leads the Walk and Talk with Lilacs, where he walks around the Island and educates people on the types and proper care of lilacs. With the help of Mary Slevin from the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, who gathers names and addresses of those requesting his services, Mr. Young goes around town and advises people on the care of their lilacs.

A member of the International Lilac Society for 10 years, Mr. Young also takes care of lilac collections at the University of Vermont Horticultural Research Center and at Shelburne Museum. He travels around the United States and Canada teaching workshops and has also maintained parks and campuses in his home town of St. Albans, Vermont.

"My real mission now is getting these public places, getting them healthy," Mr. Young said.

Most of the lilacs on the Island were planted around 1950, he said, but some of them were planted as far back as 1910, and maybe earlier. It's hard to tell when lilacs were first brought to the Island, Mr. Young said, but it is thought to be around the early 1800s. The diversity seen in lilacs on the Island exists because wealthy people would bring lilacs from their homes in places like Chicago. The International Lilac Society also planted a large number of collector plants in 1997 along Market Street.

The practice of cutting the new growth encourages the lilacs to grow bigger . Lilacs are similar to people in that the youngest ones are the healthiest ones. When lilacs get old, they are more susceptible to disease. Insects like the lilac borer infest the plant when the bark is old and rough. The best defense against disease and insects, Mr. Young said, is to keep them as healthy as possible.

"After 40, things start going down hill, and by the time you get to be 70 or 80, you have a lot of disease, like it or not," he said. "Same thing with plants. These plants have been here for over 50 years, so they're already 60 years old and they're showing all kinds of disease."

Another problem with older lilacs is the difficulty in transporting nutrients from the roots to the tops, where the blooms are.

"For every 'T' and elbow in plumbing, you have have less water pressure," Mr. Young explained. "The further you get to the top [of lilacs], the harder it is to get nutrients."

But having old lilacs was the plan on Mackinac Island, Mr. Young said. Lilacs were planted in the 1950s with the idea of having them for hundreds of years, even though lilacs only live to about 30 years in the wild. Since there were already a number of lilacs around a hundred years old, they wanted the new lilacs they were planting to live that long, as well.

Ridden with disease or not, the lilacs on Mackinac Island have survived far past their normal life span.

"This is the Garden of Eden for lilacs," he said.

The soil on the Island very closely replicates their natural environment. The limestone provides a high alkalinity, and it's sunny, breezy, and cold in the winter, he said. The lilacs are also primarily on the south side of the Island, so they are protected from the winter wind and they get the summer breeze. All of these factors create the ideal environment for lilacs to flourish.

"I can remember my first time on the Island," Mr. Young said. "I went down to the Island House and gave my first talk. I was looking at this lilac and it was this big around. I'd never seen a lilac that big in my life. . . . And I'd seen a lot of lilacs by the time I'd come here."

Mr. Young has shared his knowledge of lilacs with both residents and tourists and he uses some of the plants in town as examples of how not to care for lilacs in his talks. The plants in Marquette Park and at the Mackinac Island Marina, he said, present a more complicated problem.

Normally when a lilac grows, new growth comes from its roots, and that growth then becomes a new lilac. New growth then grows off the new plant and the process continues, with the older lilac slowly dying off. Mr. Young calls this migrating, since the new lilac grows a little farther away each time. Because the atmosphere on Mackinac Island calls for preserving history and all things old, any new growth on the lilacs in the park has not been not allowed to grow. Instead, the original lilacs were encouraged to grow bigger.

"They plant it and they grow it," he said. "They don't allow the lilacs to migrate, so they keep growing. But the soil is perfect and they keep growing. They do well here."

This practice is seen all over the Island, but the park, Mr. Young said, is a horse of a different color. Owing to budget cuts and lack of manpower, certain horticultural practices were put in place to minimize maintenance. Every park in the country has the same problem, he said. They use gardening fabric to keep the grass short, bark chips that don't deteriorate instead of mulch, and edging to prevent encroachment.

"These are all practices that now are highly discredited, but most are continuing them because they don't have the money or the manpower to do anything else," Mr. Young said. "But horticulturally, we know that's not a good practice."

Over the years, he said, the lilacs on the Island have declined, especially in the park. After one winter when the park lost about four lilacs, he talked with Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter about restoring the lilacs there. A group of residents on the Island who wanted to see the lilacs in the park restored had come forward with enough money to do so. Mr. Young is now heavily involved in renovating Marquette Park and the marina, both of which are undergoing horticultural rehabilitation. Last year, he also planted four new lilacs behind the Tourism Bureau, including a rare, yellow-leafed lilac called Syringa Villosa.

"It's kind of a labor of love," Mr. Young said. "I'm anxious to see how [last year's plants] all worked out. Last year was busy, we worked an extra week."

Mr. Porter said he is excited about the work that Mr. Young was doing in the Marquette Park, especially because some of the trees were getting old and diseased.

"Marquette Park is one of the premiere places where lilacs grow and are displayed for the people on Mackinac Island," Mr. Porter said. "We are very fortunate that Jeff is here and is willing to provide his expertise."

Marquette Park is under a 10-year plan to restore the lilacs, Mr. Young said. He and his wife, Jan, are replanting and revitalizing lilacs a couple of sections at a time. They plan on planting shorter lilacs in the front of the park and taller lilacs in the back to create a terrace effect.

"We couldn't take it all out," he said. "It would look terrible. We're working our way through it. We don't want to scar the park. If you look at the park now, you'd never know we were doing it."

Lilacs at the marina were planted just last year, but some of them died because the soil there doesn't have good drainage, Mr. Young said. Lilacs can't handle too much water, and the soil at the marina is very thin on top of limestone. One part of the marina property has a steep slope, so the water was able to run off and the lilacs did well. The other side of the marina is flatter and there is nowhere for the water to go. Out of 13 new plants, five died. This year, Mr. Young said they need to look into adding more soil on top of the limestone.

Mr. Young plans to revitalize Marquette Park and the marina so they both have strong and healthy lilacs, but he said he also wants to focus on diversifying the types of lilacs.

"We want as much diversity as we can get, and we will tag them," he said. "That way people will know what type they are and how to take care of them when I am long gone."

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