The city of Lombard, Illinois, is home to one of the most unique celebrations you’ll ever find – Lilac Time in Lombard. For over 80 years, the smallish town just outside the bustle of Chicago has been the home of one of the most prized collections of lilacs the world over and has offered these treasures up for all to see. In fact, an entire community comes together around the flower in a festival every year to celebrate their heritage, the community’s rich traditions, and the magic of the lilac – one of nature’s most beautiful creations. This festival, this celebration of the community and its beginnings, is known as Lilac Time in Lombard.
Concentrated in Lilacia Park, Lombard’s expansive collection began as the passion of a husband and wife and blossomed into what is today the legacy of an entire community. American stories have a tendency toward humble beginnings and spectacular conclusions, and the tale of the rise of the Lilac, which eventually led to the creation of the Lombard Lilac Festival, is no exception. What was once no more than two cultivars soon became the largest lilac collection in the entire world, and that, that beautiful legacy, was passed on to the city and its people to safeguard for future generations. Looking at the state of the lilac in Lombard today, it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded.
The History of Lombard’s Lilacs
The story of how these wondrous flowers came to fill a town in the American Midwest is as amazing as the flowers themselves. It begins after the Civil War ends, when a Union Colonel, William Plum, graduated Yale Law School and married his sweetheart, Helen Maria Williams. The two purchased land in what is today Lombard, at the time it was known as Babcock’s Grove, and built their home at the corner of Park and Maple Avenues. Their estate would come to be known as Lilacia which is the Latin term for lilac.
The couple’s devotion to lilacs began after a fateful trip to Europe on what was then known as the Grand Tour. Wealthy Americans of that era would take a long, leisurely trip throughout Europe to see the foundations of “Western Civilization” as they saw it, and the Plums were among those fortunate enough to partake of this amazing cultural experience. It was during their time in France, at the Lemoine Gardens in Nancy to be precise, where their love affair with the flower began.
Once their tour of the Lemoine Arboretum was complete, they rushed to purchase two spectacular lilacs of their own. These were the Madame Casimir Périer’, a double white varietal, and the Michel Buchner, a double color. The entirety of the modern-day lilac collection in Lombard grew from these two flowers, so, unlike many traditions we honor, this special connection between Lombard and the lilac extends, unbroken, for more than 80 years. Truly, when you reach out to a Lombard lilac, you reach back in time to a different era and place, and what could be more magical than that?
Upon their return to Lombard, the Plums set about cultivating their passion and did so until Mrs. Plum’s passing in 1924. Mr. Plum, distraught at the loss of his wife, attempted to sell the collection to Joy Morton, the owner of Thornhill Farm. Luckily for Lombard, and for Chicago in general, she was able to convince him that Lombard was the rightful home to the lilacs. Her property, Thornhill Farm, would go on to become the Morton Arboretum, and the lilacs, as well as the Plum estate Lilacia, would go on to become one of the most unique gifts ever given in the city, the region, or the nation at large.
At Mr. Plum’s request, upon his death, the estate and the collection of lilacs was transferred to the city of Lombard. Line nine of his Last Will and Testament outlines his wish that the estate be turned into a “free public library with reading rooms” and the grounds be given to the people for use as a public park. It’s because of his generosity and civic pride that the city of Lombard today is the envy of the world when it comes to lilacs, and the basis for what has become one of the area’s most beloved times – Lilac Time in Lombard.
Lilac Time in Lombard
For the last 80 years, since the Colonel’s generous gift, the city of Lombard has worked hard to ensure the well-being of the park and have expanded its original grounds to accommodate all of the new plantings that have taken place. Today, the park boasts over 700 lilacs and 25,000 tulips – not to mention the 1,100 lilac trees sprinkled throughout the grounds. The lilacs found here are directly descended from those found in at the Imperial Hapsburgs court in Vienna, and represent an unbroken line from the present to the far-distant past.
The city of Lombard hosts a month-long celebration of their lilac heritage every April and May known across the area as Lilac Time in Lombard. During this time of year, the entire city does all it can to welcome visitors and offer incredibly unique experiences. There literally is not a single day that passes without there being an event of some kind to attend, and a great many of them are tailored for the nature lover, the history buff, and the socialite. Whatever you enjoy, there is sure to be something that piques your interest and introduces you to another side of Lombard you may have never known.
The calendar of events for Lilac Time in Lombard usually begins in mid-April and goes through the third week of May. In recent years, the Lilac Time Softball Tournament has kicked off the celebration. This tournament raises money for the other events, including the parade, and is open to teams who register before the deadline. A round-robin format, each team will play at least two games, so there’s always a game to watch if you’re interested. Volunteer training begins at this time too, so if you’d like to play a part in helping the festivities go off without a hitch you can contact the Lombard Parks District to sign up to serve as a greeter, park guide, or house docent.
The next event held each year is the Little Lady Lilac Ball where dads and daughters age 3-11 enjoy an evening of dancing, games, and meeting with the Lilac Princesses for that year. Those same Lilac Princesses will have their annual Lilac Queen’s Coronation the following day, so everyone’s always very excited. The tradition is over 80 years old and still going strong. There are also a variety of events held around Lombard during the month aimed at connecting the citizenry with local businesses which are always a great deal of fun – like the Lilac Parade Wine Walk.
All throughout Lilac Time in Lombard, you can find days where Heritage Tours are available. These tours meet at the Lombard Historical Society Carriage House and, for a mere $4 a person, will show you a side of Lombard’s rich history you may not have been aware of – not to mention they’re just good fun. You may also want to attend the regular plant and bush sales that take place at Lilacia Park on the weekends. You can find some beautiful plants at great prices and it’s all for a worthy cause – keeping the lilacs blooming.
One of the biggest events of Lilac Time in Lombard is the Lilac Ball hosted by the Carlisle Hotel. This gala gives Lombard residents the chance to mingle with their neighbors and the city’s leaders while supporting the local area through raffles and a silent auction. It’s one of the social highlights in Lombard every year and should not be missed. The following morning is Mother’s Day and a concert is held in honor of the occasion, so bring a blanket and enjoy a wonderful time. It’s the last big event before the Parade every year and the residents and visitors always have a good time.
The final event in the celebrations of Lilac Time in Lombard is the Annual Lilac Time Parade. This extravaganza brings the entire community together to celebrate the season, strengthen the bonds of fellowship across the community, and honor the gift that the Plums gave all those years ago. Each year a theme for the parade is chosen to reflect that year and its importance to those who live and work within Lombard and this theme is embraced city-wide by the people and the businesses who call the city home. There aren’t many events you can find in and around Chicago that offer the same small-town, nostalgic feel you get when watching the parade pass by, so take the time to attend the events – especially the parade – at least once. You’ll be happy you did.