It’s lilac time again!

by Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant
April 22, 2014

It’s lilac time again!

Visitors to the Arnold Arboretum on Lilac Sunday

It takes a singular event to lay claim to a Boston tradition. Lilac Sunday, which celebrates its 106th anniversary this year on May 11, is an annual rite of spring at the Arnold Arboretum. The explosion of color and fragrance in the Syringa collection lining Bussey Hill Road has always been a huge favorite. When Arboretum Director Charles Sprague Sargent became aware of its popularity with the public and the press, he was sure to include the lilacs with his spring flowering predictions in The Bulletin of Popular Information (1911-1940).

Visitors to the Arnold Arboretum on Lilac Sunday

Visitors to the Arnold Arboretum on Lilac Sunday, May 17, 1936. Photographs by Donald Wyman. From the Lilac Sunday Collection, Archive of the Arnold Arboretum. Gelatin silver process on paper.

“At the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain there is now in bloom the largest display of lilacs ever seen in this country; it contains from 125 to 160 varieties of Syringa vulgaris. This collection has been obtained from all parts of the world, and also includes every known species in cultivation. This popular flower can be seen at its best during the following week . . . The public is cordially invited.”
Boston Daily Globe, May 25, 1895.

It is interesting to note that Lilac Sunday informally came into being due to coverage in the Boston popular press. On May 25, 1908, the Boston Daily Globe headline read: “Lilac Sunday at Arnold Arboretum.” Ever the sagacious publicist, Sargent had cultivated the press with clippings predicting which Arboretum spring-flowering plants would fully bloom at a given time, thus outlining ideal visiting times for the public. Since the Globe was aware that most people worked six days of the week, they simply chose the optimum day for people to fully enjoy the blossoms, thus christening “Lilac Sunday.”

Lilac Sunday was first officially designated by the Arboretum in Ernest Henry Wilson’s 1925 book America’s Greatest Garden. In his chapter “Lilac Time,” Wilson writes:

“The Lilac holds a particular place in our affections and in no other flowering shrub is the spirit of home more closely entwined. Go where one will in New England bushes of the Common Lilac may be seen in close proximity to homes and often they are all that are left to mark the site of old homesteads. It is a long-lived accommodating shrub thriving in all sorts of queer places, often under very adverse conditions . . . ‘Lilac Sunday’ draws the greatest crowd of people to the Arboretum.”

Cherish this Mother’s Day with a visit to the Lilac Collection!


Lilac Sunday 2014.
Lilac Collection, Arnold Arboretum.
Lilac Sunday, 1936 – . Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University [pdf].
International Lilac Society.
Alexander, John H. III [Jack] and Sinton, Nan Blake. Lilacs at the Arnold Arboretum. Plants of History—Plants for Tomorrow. [Kirkland, OH] : International Lilac Society, [1995].
Alexander, John H. III [Jack]. “Lilacs: Time for a Fresh Look.” Fine Gardening, online.
Connor, Sheila. “Century flower: 100 years of Lilac Sunday.” Silva, Spring/Summer 2008 [pdf].
Hay, Ida. Science in the Pleasure Ground: a history of the Arnold Arboretum. Boston, MA : Northeastern University Press, 1995.
Wilson, Ernest. America’s greatest garden : the Arnold Arboretum. Boston, MA : The Stratford Company, 1925.

Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant

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