Host to Rochester’s celebrated Lilac Festival in May, Highland Park boasts the most extensive collection of lilacs in the country, with over 500 varieties across 1,200 shrubs. You’ll also find a vast Japanese maple collection, 35 types of magnolias, 700 rhododendron specimens, and 300 conifer varieties in the pinetum.
Many of the trees are the tallest of their species in the state, though few are native. Highland has even been described as a museum or zoo of exotic plants and trees. Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University sent the original specimens to Rochester for simultaneous scientific study. Meander along paved and mown-grass pathways to Lamberton Conservatory, the Poet’s Garden, Highland Bowl, and Warner Castle’s Sunken Garden.
The Rochester Lilac Festival is a 10-day event that features free concerts, art shows, tastings, footraces, and parades. The lilacs in Highland Park usually bloom by mid-May, but the exact timing varies depending on the weather.
An Overview of Highland Park
Walking the paved paths weaves you up, down, and through a diverse collection of flowers, flowering bushes, and trees, taking you from the Pansy Bed to the Poet’s Garden, Tulip Garden, Lamberton Conservatory, and the reservoir. Crossing South Ave., you can wander toward the stage at Highland Bowl and one of my favorite hidden gems, Warner Castle Sunken Garden. Venturing across Mount Hope Boulevard, you’ll discover the beautiful Mount Hope Cemetery, where you can spend hours following where the pathways lead.
You can witness something new in Highland Park every day of the year! But there are several particular times I find myself compelled to visit. Begin to look for carpets of blue Glory-of-the-Snow and Siberian Squill in late March through early April. Flowering trees like Magnolias and Lilacs bloom in late April through May, with the Azaleas, Smokebush, and Buckeyes shortly after in June. Throughout the summer, hundreds of plant species put on a fascinating display, culminating in October and November when everything dons vibrant fall-foliage. For more information on what’s in bloom, we list everything at the bottom of this article.
Tree & Flowering Bush Collections
Blooms in May
The Rochester strain of lilac is known for its unique feature of having eight to twelve radials, which is a significant increase compared to the older varieties that typically only have four radials. This makes the Rochester lilac strain even more visually appealing and distinct from the traditional lilac types.
Blooms in April
In late March, Witch Hazels show off vibrant red, orange, and yellow hues, waiting patiently for the valley below to wake from winter’s slumber. Visit them while you’re admiring the carpets of blue Glory-of-the-Snow and Siberian Squill.
During early April, the valley becomes a picturesque sight as more flowering trees come to life. The main attraction is a large white magnolia tree, which sits right behind a well-placed bench. The magnolia tree is surrounded by blooming pear and cherry trees, making it a stunning centerpiece.
Blooms in Late April
Experience the stunning magnolia collection in full bloom at Highland Park from late April to early May.
Rhododendrons & Azaleas
The Rhododendron family is a diverse group of flowering plants, and one of its most well-known members is the azalea. Although all azaleas belong to the Rhododendron genus, they have their own distinct characteristics that set them apart from other members of the family. Azalea plants tend to be smaller in size with more delicate leaves, and they produce an abundance of brightly colored blooms in the spring.
On the other hand, rhododendrons are larger shrubs with broader leaves that typically bloom later in the season. Despite their differences, both azaleas and rhododendrons are beloved for their stunning displays of flowers and ability to thrive in various climates.
The Japanese Maples are a stunning display year-round, with autumn being exceptionally breathtaking. The Japanese Maples are a breathtaking sight to behold with their vibrant colors and delicate leaves. From the lush green hues of spring and summer to the fiery reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn, these trees offer a stunning display that is nothing short of magical.
The Tulip Bed
I always refer to the section next to Lamberton Conservatory as the Tulip Bed, even though it is replanted with summer flowers after the tulips fade away.
The Pansy Bed
The flower bed is redesigned twice a year. In spring, the master gardeners create a new plan for summer flowers to replace the pansies once they have wilted.
Beyond the Collections
Exploring the trees and blooming bushes throughout Highland Park is a unique experience every season. The paved paths will guide you through meadows and hills, where you’ll encounter something new every time you visit. Even if you’ve been there many times before, you’ll be constantly surprised by the beauty of this park.
The Poet’s Garden
The Poet’s Garden in Highland is a hidden gem cherished by many. Its tranquil path winds through flowers and foliage. Benches are scattered throughout, offering a peaceful respite for those seeking moments of quiet reflection.
The Pinetum features over 300 conifer species and varieties sourced from around the globe. It’s a haven for green lovers, with hundreds of unique shades to admire.
The City of Rochester’s Bureau of Water maintains three water reservoirs: one closed pool in Rush and two open reservoirs at the city’s Highland and Cobbs Hill Parks.
Of the three, Highland Reservoir is the smallest, with approximately 26 million gallons capacity. The City of Rochester’s primary water supply is Canadice and Hemlock Lakes, two of New York’s 11 Finger Lakes.
Take a break and unwind in the Lord and Burnham–designed glasshouse filled with exotic, desert, and economic plants, including banana trees. Enjoy tropical temperatures and the soothing sounds of running water. Find turtles lounging by indoor ponds, with tiny button quail and tortoises wandering around. The theme of the Seasonal Display Room changes five times throughout the year, with the beloved Holiday Show in December. During this time, the conservatory is open on Friday and Sunday evenings to fully appreciate the beautiful festive lights. Admission fee.
Warner Castle Sunken Garden
In 1951, Monroe County Parks purchased the castle and grounds as an extension of Highland Park. The 1854 Gothic-style castle is now the headquarters for the Landmark Society of Western New York. In 1930, landscape architect Alling S. DeForest, who also designed the Eastman estate’s gardens, added the sunken garden to the property. Photographers often capture wedding and family photos in the garden, but it can be a peaceful retreat if you visit when it’s not crowded.
Highland Park Bowl
Highland Park Bowl is an outdoor amphitheater for live performances like Opera Under the Stars, Shakespeare in the Park, and Movies in the Park.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Plaza
In 1899, the people of Rochester, New York, were the first in the United States to create a statue honoring a black American citizen. Initially placed in a prominent location in front of Rochester’s New York Central Train Station, the statue of Frederick Douglass was moved to the Highland Bowl in 1941. In 2019, it was moved again to a more visible spot on South Avenue. The memorial features a sculpture of the North Star, which represents a guide for people seeking freedom from enslavement and was the name of Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper. This original likeness inspired 13 fiberglass Frederick Douglass statues you can look for in 13 sites of significance throughout Rochester, in addition to a bronze statue inside the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport.
Previously part of Highland Park, the memorials south of Highland Drive are now considered Beikirck Park.
War on Terror Memorial is the newest addition, unveiled on September 11, 2021. It honors the memory of service members from Monroe and surrounding counties who bravely lost their lives in U.S. military conflicts from 1990 through current times.
Greater Rochester Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial commemorates the service, valor, and sacrifice of more than 28,000 Vietnam Veterans from our region and the 280 men who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
AIDS Memorial provides a quiet place for reflection for those affected by the AIDS virus.
Victims Rights Memorial recognizes members of our community who are victims of violent crimes.
Workers’ Rights Memorial recognizes members of our community who helped advance the AFL-CIO mission.
Lilac Adventure Zone
This natural playground made with logs is a favorite climbing spot for the children.
What’s in Bloom Each Month
Here are a few highlights from the Highland Park Conservancy website on what you can see each month:
March and early-April
- Witch Hazels – South of the Overlook
- Helleborus foetidus – Stinking Hellobore
- Helleborus niger – Christmas Rose
- Helleborus orientalis – Lenten Rose
- Eranthis hyemalis – Winter Aconite
- Galanthus – Snow Drops
- Chionodoxa – Glory of the Snow
- Scilla Siberica – Squill
- Primula – Cowslip
- Vinca minor – Periwinkle
- Sanguinaria canadensis – Bloodroot
- Narcissus – Poets’
- Anemone Blanda – Windflower
- Hepatica acutiloba
- Podophyllum peltatum – May Apple
- Epimedium – Bishop’s Hat
- Trillium grandiflorum
- Mertensia virginicus – Virginia Bluebell
- Asarum europium – European Ginger
- Arisaema triphyllum – Jack in the Pulpit
- Lathyrus vernus – Spring Vetchling
- Tulipa – Tulip
- Viola – Violet
- Polygonatum biflorum – Solomon’s Seal
Late April–Early May
- Magnolias – southwest of the Reservoir
- Forsythias and daffodils – south of the Overlook
- Flowering pears – along South Goodman between Highland and Elmwood
- Tulips – corner of South Avenue and Reservoir Drive
Mid- to Late May
- Crabapples – along South Goodman between Highland and Elmwood
- Flowering Dogwood – south of the Overlook
- Muscari – Grape Hyacinth
- Convallaria majalis – Lily of the Valley
- Doronicum – Leopard’s Bane
- Hyacinthoides hispanica – wood hyacinth
- Azaleas – southeast of the Overlook
- Horse chestnuts – west of the Reservoir
- Lilacs – along Highland Avenue
- Pansy Bed – on Highland Avenue
- Spirea – southeast of the Reservoir
- Tree peonies – west of the horse chestnuts
- Wisteria – southeast of the Reservoir
- Rhododendron – southeast of the Overlook
- Iris – near the magnolias
- Hesperis matronalis – Dame’s Rocket
- Sweet Woodruff
- Herb Robert
- Virginia Waterleaf
- Day Lily
- Wild Columbine
- Erythronium – Dogtooth Violet
- Smoke Bush
- Mock oranges – southeast of the Reservoir
- Hydrangeas – southeast of the Reservoir
- Hardy Geranium/Crane’s Bill
- Thalictrum – Wild Meadowrue
- Anemone syvestris
- Annual bedding plants and Shrub Althea
- Wood Aster
- Gooseneck Loosestrife
- Golden Rain Tree
- Decaisnea fargesii shrubs – This plant’s ripened bluish-colored and finger-shaped fruit inspires its common name–dead man’s fingers. The shrub is native to western China and other western Asia countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, and northeastern parts of India.
- Overlooking the Pansy Bed, Highland Park’s Katsura Tree is the largest specimen in the state. Look for the Katsura Tree to turn gold, then drop its leaves over a short period. When they do, the area smells like cotton candy.
- Highland Park explodes with autumn color.
December, January, and February
Enjoy the quiet among the evergreens.
More information about Highland Park
Located in the City of Rochester (get directions)
Highland Park Conservancy
Highland Park Conservancy, founded in 1994, is a member-supported, all-volunteer organization: the official not-for-profit partner of Monroe County for the stewardship of Highland Park. You can learn more at highlandparkconservancy.org.
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Rochester became a global center for flower and tree nurseries in the mid-1800s, fostering our identity as The Flower City.
Where are your favorite spots in Highland Park?
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