It’s been written about in poetry, pressed into the bindings of books, adorned crowns, bouquets, and the countryside. The roots of the lilac plant run deep, with most of the plant species hailing from Asia and Eastern Europe before being carried away across the globe. Eventually, during the colonial period, the beautiful flower made its way over to the United States and became a presidential favorite. They could be found in the gardens of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington before finally being planted in some of America’s first botanical gardens.

With the sudden popularity of these blooming beauties, it seemed inevitable that lilacs would be found in the Inland Northwest as settlers headed west. What was never anticipated, however, was how these soft shades of purple and pink would transform the budding city of Spokane into the one and only Lilac City.

spokane lilac city
The Spokane Lilac Festival started as a simple parade in celebration of the budding flower and has gone on to transform into a week-long extravaganza. Photo courtesy: The Spokane Lilac Festival Association

Young Spokane Blooms into Lilac City in the Early 1900s

The region’s first lilacs arrived in the late 1800s, with early settlers tucking small, rooted plants in their trunks and boxes so they could put a reminder of their original home into their new gardens. However, the first “official” recording of lilacs being planted in Spokane was in the Browne’s Addition neighborhood in 1906, according to Spokane Historical, when one of the city founders, J.J. Browne, planted two lilac bushes in his front yard.

The plant proved resilient in the region’s harsh, almost desert-like climate, seemingly cementing its popularity in their newfound home. By 1912, Spokane Parks Director John W. Duncan had planted 128 lilac bushes in Manito Park, each a cultivar from Rochester, New York. This marked the beginning of the official Lilac Garden in Manito Park. Afterward, he and other city leaders encouraged residents to plant more lilacs in their own personal gardens. And plant they did, giving root to the city’s first-ever Lilac Festival years later.

spokane lilac city
Lilac Queens have been crowned since 1940 and can be found on some of the most colorful floats in the parade, such as this one in 2011. As you can see, purple is still the primary color. Photo credit: Gordan Watts

Spokane Held its First Lilac Festival in 1938

From there, Spokane became a floral tapestry of purples, pinks, and whites, but the idea to promote Spokane as “The Lilac City” wouldn’t come later until the early 1930s when the local garden club was encouraged by community leaders to plant lilac bushes throughout the city. In 1933, the first garden club in Washington, the Spokane Floral Association, was formed in 1896. It would go on to become the Associated Garden Clubs of Spokane and joined forces with six other garden clubs to secure Spokane’s official recognition as the Lilac City.

Together, this affiliation of garden clubs continued to collaborate on larger civic projects as the Associated Garden Clubs (AGC) of Spokane while maintaining their own autonomy. After being inspired by the Portland Rose Festival in 1938, the AGC came together to hold the first-ever Lilac Festival Flower Show, which included a small parade. The celebration was such a huge success that they decided to carry on the newfound tradition the following year and the year after in 1940. Then, a royalty program was added to the festivities to honor young women from the Spokane area, with the addition of the crowning of a Lilac Queen. Though the festival would take a brief hiatus from 1943 to 1945 due to World War I, the rest, as they say, is history, as the Lilac Festival became a beloved staple of tradition for the Spokane community.

spokane lilac city
The Syringa Spokane Lilac is a lovely double pink bud that produces a dark lilac-colored flower that ages to light lilac. Photo courtesy: Spokane Historical/Tracy L. Rebstock

The Roots of Spokane’s Historic Lilacs Continue to Blossom Today

As with the changes of the season, so too has Spokane’s lilacs. What started as merely flowers and a one-day celebration with a parade has blossomed into a week-long extravaganza. What’s more, the deep-rooted tradition has bloomed beyond the plant itself and has extended its branches to honor the military, empower the youth, and showcase the region.

These majestic purple and pink cascades of blooms have become so ingrained in the city’s identity that a hybrid lilac was created in 1999 specifically for the city called the Syringa Spokane Lilac. The large shrub features dark flowers that age to a paler lilac color as the seasons change. In 2008, several plants had matured enough to be planted in the still stand and ever-famous Lilac Garden in Manito Park.

spokane lilac city
The Lilac Garden in Spokane’s Manito Park is the largest lilac garden in the West and is home to over 100 different variants of the plant. Photo courtesy: Spokane Parks and Recreation

To this day, the garden is still home to many of its original lilacs, featuring over 100 named cultivars from 23 distinct species of the plant, making it one of the most important lilac gardens in the West. Locals will agree that no trip to Spokane is complete without visiting this beloved community garden for this full-on sensory experience. There, you’ll be immersed in variations of vibrant colors and pleasant aromatics as you discover firsthand why Spokane is the Lilac City.