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A lilac expert on Mackinac Island's amazing lilacs: They're a 'force of nature'

It's 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon and crowds are lining up at Sainte Anne's Catholic Church on Mackinac Island during the island's annual Lilac Festival. They're waiting for the man of the hour to lead his next planting demo: Jeff Young.

Young is used to drawing crowds. He carries the coveted title of lilac expert during the island’s annual festival.

Every year since 2005, Young, who used to reside in Vermont but now lives on an island off the Georgia coast, travels to Mackinac Island to give tours and planting demonstrations during the festival.

And every year, the people Young encounters on his tours run the gamut. Some come every year. Others have never planted anything in their lives.

"I'm amazed at the people who come here year after year," said Young, who often attends the festival with his wife, Jan, or his youngest daughter, Cassie. "We've got a fan base."

But it's the lilacs that really have the fans. Young estimates Mackinac Island has more than 250 varieties, some dating back more than 200 years. Tim Hygh, the head of Mackinac Island's Tourism Bureau, has said the lilacs on the island offer visitors "a second spring" because they bloom for more than three weeks.

It’s unclear how Mackinac got its first lilacs — theories include the idea that a New Hampshire farmer brought them to the island centuries ago or they that were introduced during the Civil War — but its old stem lilacs back to the 1860s.

"There are six of them (the old stems) left," said Young. "There are pictures of those lilacs from the 1860s and they're two stories tall. They were huge even then. We speculate that there were 12 originally."

According to the Mackinac Arts Council, famed author Henry David Thoreau visited Mackinac Island while he was fighting tuberculosis in 1861. He took detailed notes of the plants on the island, including the lilac.

And why are the lilacs so big? It's a question Young gets often.

"We really don't know," admits Young. "...They're a force of nature."

Young got into lilacs by accident. After buying some lilacs, he went online to find out how to care for them years ago and discovered the Lilac Society. He realized the group was holding an international convention in Quebec, not from his home in St. Albans, Vermont. He decided to go. 

"I said I’ll just go over for the weekend," said Young. "Two years later I was on the board."

In 2005, looking for someone to replace the previous lilac expert that used to give tours during the Lilac Festival, Young agreed to go Mackinac Island to learn from another expert and then planned to take over the following year. But as he stepped off the ferry, "they said 'Brad isn’t coming and you're on in 10 minutes."

He's been attending the festival ever since. In 2007, he helped lead an overhaul of the lilacs in the island's Marquette Park -- where a large majority of the island's lilacs were planted in 1949-150 -- many of which were in rough shape. There are 75 different varieties of lilacs in the park alone.

"We completely overhauled the plants (in the park) because there were a lot of old plants that were dying," said Young.

Young didn't come to the island last year because of COVID. And while tours -- he leads tours and planting demos every day of the festival -- were slow last weekend, numbers picked up this week with as many as 80 people attending some of them, said Young.

He's also signing copies of a new book he provided data for about Mackinac's lilacs, "Lilacs: A fortnight of fragrance on Mackinac Island." It's available at the bookstore and other shops.

Young said for those who'd like to grow their own lilacs, maintenance -- or pruning -- is important. But it really depends on what you want out of your lilacs, be it ornamental or as a hedge. 

"There are so many different kinds of lilacs," said Young. "Each one has its own peculiarity in dealing with it."

So how long will Young keep coming to Mackinac to share his expertise? As long as he can.

"Good question," he laughs. "Sixteen seasons and counting. I'll keep doing it as long as I can."