Amazingly, it’s May and somehow we are on the brink of summer, a time when flowers — and flower shows — are blooming profusely around Southern California.
If you don’t mind a little drive, take a day trip to Idyllwild to wander Gary Parton’s colorful and fragrant Idyllwild Lilac Garden, with 165 different colors of the old-fashioned flowers that resemble clusters of tiny grapes with an intoxicating scent, sometimes spicy and sometimes sweet. The colors range from blue-violet and magenta to pinks and whites and, of course, dark purples, some of which resemble the burgundy hues of red wine.
In this mountain town where winter is just receding, his 300 lilac bushes are at their peak in May, said Parton, a retired El Camino Junior College art teacher, who moved from Torrance to Idyllwild in the late 1990s. Parton, who said he’s “old-school,” doesn’t have a website and his Facebook page hasn’t been updated since 2021, but visitors can wander for free on weekends between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. through May 22.
Lilac blooms are deeply emotional for many people, Parton said. Many visitors tell him they grew up with lilacs on the East Coast but haven’t really seen them since they moved to the West.
“This is a plant of memory,” he said. “I’ve literally had women breaking down when they wander the garden. I have to have chairs for people just so they can sit and collect themselves. For many people, it’s just a magical plant.”
Parton, 83, retired in 1998 and was befriended by another Idyllwild resident, concert pianist Reva Ballreich, who started cultivating lilacs after carpal tunnel syndrome ended her music career. She gave him many lilacs before she died, starting him on his lilac journey. For years now, his dream has been to make the lilac Idyllwild’s flower by giving bushes away to local businesses and helping to plant them. Today you can see blooming lilacs up and down the main street, he said, the fruits of his labors.
“This is a plant of memory.”
— Gary Parton
But the last few years have been hard on Parton’s lilacs. Last year he officially closed his nursery, Alpenglow Lilac Garden, because he didn’t think he could keep up with maintaining the business (although he still has leftover plants to sell). Southern California’s ongoing drought has required him to water more, and admission to the lilac garden has always been free, so Parton has only a lonely donation bucket to offset water bills that climbed over $800 last summer.
“I couldn’t bring myself to have someone stand out front and collect money; it’s just too important for people to see this,” he said.
But he still gives tours to schoolchildren, hoping to build a new foundation of scented memories, and he has some tips for Southern California gardeners who want to grow lilacs: The plants usually need cold temperatures to set blooms, not easy to find in the area’s moderate clime, but Parton says you can trick lilacs into budding by withholding water from them in July and August until they start to wilt. If you give the plants a good watering once they wilt, they will bounce back, he said, but the stress will jump-start their budding cycle so they bloom the following spring.
Two other tips: Make sure they get at least four hours of sun a day and stay away from nitrogen fertilizers. “Lilacs don’t like nitrogen and if you overfeed them, you’ll end up with big bushes and no blooms.”
Parton’s lilac varieties date back to the 1800s and come from all over the world — he even has a small section dedicated to lilacs from Russia, which get visits every year from a few Russian families who live in Los Angeles. “They set up tables, pass around food and talk about their childhood and the lilacs. They have no political angle; they just want to remember and celebrate the lilacs and be around them every year … wouldn’t it be great if all we had to argue about was who had the best lilac color?”
Idyllwild Lilac Garden is open weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 25025 Fern Valley Road in Idyllwild-Pine Cove. Admission is free.
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