Today, Michael J. Nighan informs us that — unbeknownst to most — the lilac itself is a kind of usurper. In fact, for a significant time, the aster was the official flower of our fair city.
Rochester Goes to Seed and Eventually Gets a Kick in the Aster!
Rochester’s identification with the lilac is well-known far and wide. Since 1898 scores of thousand of tourists visit here each May to tramp around Highland Park among the more than 500 varieties of that flower. Far less well-known is the fact that until WWI Rochester had no official flower, and when it finally did get one it wasn’t the lilac, it was the aster.
The story of how the lilac rose to dominate Rochester is fairly well-known. In its evolution from the water-powered “Flour City” to the horticultural “Flower City,” nurserymen George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry and “seedsman” James Vick played a leading role. Ellwanger and Barry, donated 20 acres of land near their Mount Hope nursery to the city in 1888, in the process taking the first step toward the creation of Highland Park. As part of the park’s development, Long Island horticulturalist John Dunbar was hired to supervise the planting of the rare and unusual specimens, including several varieties of lilacs, donated by Ellwanger and Barry. So popular did the lilacs become that Dunbar was nicknamed “Johnny Lilacseed” by local wags.
Vick arrived on the scene two decades after Ellwanger and Barry. But his impact on the
“Flower City” was also significant. Starting as a newspaper publisher, including printing Frederick Douglass’ North Star, Vick acquired the Horticulturist magazine, soon discovering that there was an unfilled demand in America for quality flower and vegetable seeds. Seeing an economic opportunity, in 1866 he purchased 50 acres along East Avenue on the outskirts of Rochester and began growing and hybridizing seeds for commercial nurseries. With his knowledge of printing, Vick was able to run his business by mail order, producing colorful and eye-appealing catalogues, eventually sending out over 200,000 copies annually.
Within a few years Vick’s successful advertising strategy (in addition to his catalogues he was regularly running ads in over 3,000 newspapers nationwide and in foreign lands) necessitated the building of the Seedhouse, a large
warehouse and shipping office on East Ave, where 100 employees handled the 3,000 letters and 300 seed orders being received each day. The Vick Park Nursery eventually became Rochester’s second largest horticultural business,
behind the omni-present Ellwanger and Barry nursery.
James Vick died in 1882, his four sons carrying on the business. Rochester’s rapid growth eventually necessitated the Vicks moving their operations to acreage off Manitou Road and other areas outside the city. The original nursery
grounds became building lots, with the newly-created streets commemorating in the names Vick Park A and Vick Park B, the business they had replaced.
So popular did this, and the Vick’s other varieties of asters become that they eventually had 136 acres devoted to that flower alone. During WWI, the lilacs notwithstanding, the city council proclaimed the Rochester Aster as the city’s first official flower. And a patriotic postcard produced during the war shows an American flag, one acre in size, composed entirely of Vick asters. In 1920 however, in the midst of the post-war recession, the Vicks sold out their operations to the Burpee Seed Company.
But Ellwanger, Barry and Johnny Lilacseed got the last laugh. In 1948, bowing to public pressure, the Rochester city council kicked out the aster and crowned the lilac as the city’s new, and assumedly permanent, official flower.