The Scene

‘A lot of purple’: May means Lilac Time in Lombard

The lilacs in Lombard bloom in seven different colors. Some bloom early, some mid-season, and some later. “Lombard Lilac Time” will take place May 4 to May 19, during the height of bloom.

The lilacs of Lilacia Park seemed to bloom early this spring.

The Lombard Park District moved its “bloom ‘o’ meter” dial to “fully blooming” an entire week before the Lilac Queen coronation, a village tradition of more than 90 years.

But Lombard historians and lilac experts, the people who tend to the park and know the story behind every notable plant, shrub and weeping white mulberry tree, add some context.

“The lilacs don’t bloom at all one time. So there’s always something to see in Lilacia Park during Lilac Time,” said Alison Costanzo, the executive director of the Lombard Historical Society. “Even though we’ve already hit peak bloom, the park still looks fabulous.”

Lilac Time arrived May 4, an almost monthlong celebration that, while centering on the park, earns the town its singular status as the “Lilac Village.” Lombardians have lilac bushes in their front yards. Mailboxes are painted – you guessed it – purple. The Babcock’s Grove House restaurant has prepared Key lime lemon lilac pies with edible petals.

“We have our gift shop here in the Lilac Emporium and people tell me year-round I don’t have enough purple in the store,” Costanzo said. “And we have a lot of purple.”

Bloom colors range from white to pink to magenta to deep purple. The aptly named President Lincoln lilac, a leggy shrub in the park, has trusses of blue-lavender flowers. Col. William Plum, a Civil War telegrapher and Yale-educated lawyer whose garden grew into Lilacia Park, was thought to have said, “Just like Lincoln, not much to look at, but true blue.”

“I think Wedgewood blue is the prettiest,” Lombard Park District horticulturist Jane Burke said.

She cares for the grounds, home to some 1,000 lilac bushes and trees, all four seasons. In October, Burke and her crew planted 50,000 tulip bulbs. She’s particular – “real picky” – about her soil. Burke does not use pesticides and prefers to let nature do its thing.

“I had a visitor from Australia and another group from California and they just rave about the park,” she said.

That’s the reward for a labor intensive job, but it’s not simply a job. Burke grew up in neighboring Wheaton. Her parents ran Carney’s Bakery. She would take her kids to Lilacia Park for picnics on the lawn after school.

“People tell you all day every day thank you. And that’s awesome,” Burke said. “You feel really appreciated when you put all that work in.”

‘To Be of Service to Flower Lovers’

The history of Lombard’s zeal for lilacs is as colorful as the park landscape. In the early 1900s, Plum and his wife, Helen, began bringing home lilacs from their travels abroad after visiting the gardens of Victor Lemoine in France.

“To Be of Service to Flower Lovers” was the title of a historical society exhibit in 2018 about the origins of the park. It also referred to Plum’s application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, explaining why he wanted to import lilacs from France.

The colonel left his estate to the people of Lombard upon his death in 1927, stating in his will that the lilac-lush land become a public park and the couple’s house becomes a “free public library.”

“That civic-mindedness is really kind of weaved into what Lombard is,” Costanzo said.

Once the park was established, Jens Jensen, the Danish-American landscape architect behind some of Chicago’s landmark parks, designed the older section of the grounds.

“He had a real soft spot for lilacs,” Costanzo said.

During Lilac Time, the historical society gives tours of Lilacia Park, highlighting the original elements of Jensen’s design: the pond, winding paths and council circles, places for people to gather and exchange ideas.

“She has such a great respect for Jens Jensen, for Colonel Plum and the park and doing what’s best by the park,” Costanzo said of Burke.

‘An identity’

Burke likes to fly under the radar and she heaps praise on her “incredible crew,” but she does ask herself what Jensen would do or what Plum would want.

Like the colonel, who also had an iris collection, Burke emphasizes four-season interest. The delphiniums in the park can grow to 6 feet tall.

But all eyes – and noses – are on the lilacs. The late-bloomers, the Korean lilacs, are “just now starting to open up,” Burke said.

“Lilac Time is year-round for people. It’s an identity,” said Costanzo, who called the Lilac Parade one of the biggest events of the year. “Every community has its own unique idea of what it is, but there is some real pride about being the Lilac Village in Lombard.”