Gary Parton with the Ernie Maxwell lilac. Photo by Marshall Smith
Gary Parton with the Ernie Maxwell lilac. Photo by Marshall Smith

“Some people think lilacs are just an Eastern thing,” said Gary Parton, Idyllwild’s lilac patron. But even though most longstanding lilac festivals are in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., Parton and his new committee want to establish Idyllwild as a nationally known lilac town. This year, beginning at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 2, the Idyllwild Lilac Celebration Committee, Parton’s new nonprofit, launches the first of its Idyllwild Lilac Celebrations. “We are starting small with hopes to grow bigger,” said Parton.

Starting in May 2009, Parton began opening his Alpenglow Gardens on Fern Valley Road to locals and visitors with tours and a formal tea when his garden bloomed in late April, early May. Parton was continuing the tradition of Idyllwild’s “Lilac Lady,” Reva Ballreich, who began planting and hybridizing lilacs when she moved to the Hill in 1982. Her May garden openings became major “flower” tourist draws, eventually featuring more than 880 lilac varietals at their peak.

When she died in 2009, Parton resolved to continue and grow her vision — to create an annual festival or celebration that would establish Idyllwild as the West’s premier lilac town. His tours and teas for the last six years were rehearsals for the 2015 wider celebration. As part of the run-up to 2015, Parton and his supporters, including volunteers from the Idyllwild Garden Club, began planting more than 1,000 lilacs in downtown commercial locations. Again in 2015, beginning in October, Parton and committee will make available to local merchants 100 lilac plants for installation in the village center.

The 2015 Idyllwild Lilac Celebration again features guided tours of Parton’s Alpenglow Gardens, art shows with working artists, and the charming Victorian tea that has become so popular with locals and visitors. Saturday tours run until 3 p.m. and the tea is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

New this year, as part of programs that will expand over the succeeding years, is a Saturday event, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Idyllwild Library. Featured are a panel discussion on “Growing Lilacs in California;” presentation of a new lilac varietal, the “Ernie Maxwell Lilac,” to the Town Crier (Maxwell was the founder and longtime editor of the paper); a talk by Idyllwild Area Historical Society historian and spokesperson Bob Smith about Maxwell, featuring archival pictures and Maxwell cartoons; and refreshments with a cake featuring one of Maxwell’s cartoons. Parton noted that there are currently, in his garden, 13 more varietals that are as yet unnamed. Each year, as part of the annual celebration, Parton and committee will present a different varietal, newly named for another Idyllwild resident.

Sunday, May 3, also includes new events. From 10 to 11 a.m. at the Caine Learning Center, a guest speaker from the International Lilac Society will discuss “A Lilac in Every Garden,” with some poetry to be read by Doug Austin, Idyllwild’s own Charles Dickens. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. there will be an interactive event “Artists Inspired by Lilacs” with live music, floral arrangements, paintings, photography and pastry designs. The day concludes back at Alpenglow Lilac Gardens with wine, cheese, art and music from 4 to 6 p.m.

Although not time-congruent with the 2015 weekend celebration, the annual celebration will also include a “Lilac Learning Activity” to be conducted with fourth-grade students at Idyllwild School through a series of experimental cross-curricular classes and activities focusing on lilacs. Supervised by IS teachers Michelle Adler and Tom Dillon, with coordination from Parton’s committee, teaching units will include art, biology, history and geography of lilacs, student stories to be written about lilacs and cuttings of lilacs for students to take home. Parton sees it as immersion and inspiration about lilacs for students.

Parton, a retired teacher, often smiles when he discusses something about which he is enthused. “For instance, in the art segment, students will only use Crayola crayons with lilac hues and colors,” he beamed. “We’re hoping to create an educational template that can be used by the International Lilac Society and throughout U.S. school systems.”

For more information about the 2015 Idyllwild Lilac Celebration, visit,  or contact Parton at 951-659-9711 or Toni Berthelotte at 951-659-2907.