How to visit the hidden Idyllwild Lilac Garden

by Benjamin L. Landry
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Amazingly, it’s May, and somehow, we are on the brink of summer, when flowers — and flower shows — are blooming profusely around Southern California.

If you don’t mind a little drive, take a day trip to Idyllwild to wander Gary Parton’s colorful and fragrant Idyllwild Lilac Garden, with 165 different colors of old-fashioned flowers that resemble clusters of tiny grapes with an intoxicating scent, sometimes spicy and sometimes sweet. The colors range from blue-violet and magenta to pinks and whites and dark purples, some of which resemble the burgundy hues of red wine.

How to visit the hidden Idyllwild Lilac Garden

In this mountain town where winter is just receding, his 300 lilac bushes are at their peak in May — especially Mother’s Day weekend — said Parton, a retired El Camino Junior College art teacher who moved from Torrance to Idyllwild in the late 1990s. Parton, who said he’s “old-school,” doesn’t have a website, and his Facebook page hasn’t been updated since 2021, but visitors can wander free on weekends between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. through May 22.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Lilac blooms are deeply emotional for many people, Parton said. Many visitors tell him they grew up with lilacs on the East Coast but haven’t seen them since they moved to the West.

“This is a plant of memory,” he said. “I’ve had women breaking down when they wander the garden. I have chairs for people so that they can sit and collect themselves. For many people, it’s just a magical plant.”

Parton, 83, retired in 1998 and was befriended by another Idyllwild resident, concert pianist Reva Ballreich, who started cultivating lilacs after carpal tunnel syndrome ended her music career. She gave him many lilacs before she died, starting him on his lilac journey. For years, his dream has been to make the lilac Idyllwild’s flower by giving it away to local businesses and helping plant them. Today you can see blooming lilacs up and down the main street; he said, the fruits of his labors.

Gary Parton runs Idyllwild Lilac Garden, where the plants bloom in spring against a backdrop of pine trees and mountains.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“This is a plant of memory.”

— Gary Parton

But the last few years have been hard on Parton’s lilacs. Last year he officially closed his nursery, Alpenglow Lilac Garden, because he didn’t think he could keep up with maintaining the business (although he still has leftover plants to sell). SoCal’s ongoing drought has required him to water more, and admission to the lilac garden has always been free. Parton has only a lonely donation bucket to offset water bills that climbed over $800 last summer.

“I couldn’t bring myself to have someone stand out front and collect money; it’s just too important for people to see this,” he said.

Southern California’s San Jacinto Mountains are visible from Idyllwild Lilac Garden.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

But he still gives tours to schoolchildren, hoping to build a new foundation of scented memories. He has some tips for Southern California gardeners who want to grow lilacs: The plants usually need cold temperatures to set blooms, which are not easy to find in SoCal’s moderate clime, but Parton says you can trick lilacs into budding by withholding water from them in July and August until they start to wilt. If you give the plants a good watering once they fade, they will bounce back, he said, but the stress will jump-start their budding cycle, so they bloom the following spring.

Two other tips: Ensure they get at least four hours of sun daily and stay away from nitrogen fertilizers. “Lilacs don’t like nitrogen, and if you overfeed them, you’ll end up with big bushes and no blooms.”

Parton’s lilac varieties date back to the 1800s and come from all over the world — he even has a small section dedicated to lilacs from Russia, which get visits every year from a few Russian families who live in Los Angeles. “They set up tables, pass around food and talk about their childhood and the lilacs. They have no political angle; they want to remember and celebrate the lilacs and be around them every year … wouldn’t it be great if all we had to argue about was who had the best lilac color?”


(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

If you prefer to stay closer to L.A. and whimsical forms are your thing, check out South Coast Botanic Garden’s new exhibit of more than 100 artfully shorn plants called “Flamboyance — A Topiary Menagerie.” The show, which runs through July 31, features topiary animals in six groups along the front half of the garden, including “70 life-sized flamingos filled with begonias, a pack of dogs, a fluffle of rabbits, a troop of monkeys, a swarm of butterflies and a pod of dolphins.” The exhibit is free with a general admission ticket.

You also can find several flower shows in May, featuring orchids, geraniums, and chrysanthemums, or visit botanic gardens or flower farms to catch the tail end of spectacular spring blooms.

SoCal gardeners also can find several gardening classes. Now is the time to finish planting; the sooner, the better, and mulch, mulch, mulch before the heat is upon us, baking the tender roots of your veggies and flowers. Compost makes a fine mulch, especially for vegetable gardens, but you can also use straw or leaves to retain moisture and help rebuild the soil.

Megan, left, Hazel and Etan Rosenbloom tour Idyllwild Lilac Garden. Owner Gary Parton gave the visitors a fresh bouquet of pink lilacs.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s a list of the May garden- and plant-related events and activities. Email events to jJeanettemarantos@blogweb at least three weeks before they happen, and we might include them in the calendar.

Through May 8The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch are still in bloom and open for visits from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $22 for adults; $20 for seniors 60+ and military; $10 for children ages 3-10; free for children under 3. Tickets must be purchased online.

Through May 22Idyllwild Lilac Garden is open on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 25025 Fern Valley Road in Idyllwild-Pine Cove. Admission is free.

Through May 31The first Butterfly Garden Contest for gardens in southwest Riverside County, sponsored by the Santa Margarita Group of the San Gorgonio chapter of the Sierra Club. Gardens should include California native nectar plants for adult butterflies and host plants for the caterpillars (based on information on the California Native Plant Society’s database under the “butterflies” tab). Gardens must be in Canyon Lake, Hemet, Lake Elsinore, Menifee, Murrieta, Perris, Temecula, Wildomar, or Winchester. They will be evaluated in four categories, ranging from extra small (25 square feet or less, including container gardens) to larger than 125 square feet. Gardens will be judged on their overall beauty and functionality for all local butterflies; to be eligible, they must be primarily composed of native plants. It’s free to enter. Winners will be announced on June 10, with prizes from $50 to $125, depending on garden size. Visit the website for entry forms and information.

Through July 31Flamboyance — A Topiary Menagerie exhibit of more than 100 whimsical topiaries at South Coast Botanic Garden, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Estates, daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit is free with $15 admission to the garden ($11 for seniors 62+ and students with I.D., $5 for children ages 5-12, free for members, children four and younger, and everyone on the third Tuesday of every month). Advance online purchase is required for nonmembers.

May 5Edible landscaping presentation by the U.C. Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Orange County explains how to integrate vegetables, herbs, berries, and fruit trees into your landscape in beautiful and interesting ways from 10 to 11 a.m. in the Murray Senior and Community Center, 24932 Veterans Way in Mission Viejo. The presentation is free.

May 6-7Gates Cactus and Succulent Society 47th Annual Sale from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Redlands Church of the Nazarene, 1307 E. Citrus Ave. in Redlands. The sale promises thousands of rare and unusual cacti and succulents, unique handmade pottery for sale, and growing tips from professional growers. Admission is free.

May 7Huntington Beach Monarch Nature Trail Volunteer Day from 9 to 11 a.m. at 5302 Rancho Road in Huntington Beach. Volunteers can work on various tasks, including seed collection, watering, mulching, and weeding. Children will be able to participate in a hands-on nature activity. Volunteers should wear tennis shoes, a hat, and sunscreen and bring their water. No restrooms are available at the site. The eC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Orange County. Sponsored the event Admission is free, and no registration is required.

Foodscaping With Native Plants is a class taught by Sophie Pennes, owner of Urban Farms L.A., from 11 a.m. to noon at Fig Earth Supply, 3577 N. Figueroa St. in Mt. Washington. PPennies which specializes in building food gardens and native plant gardens around Los Angeles, will explain how adding native plants to a landscape can improve the health and production of vegetable gardens by attracting pollinators. Capacity is limited to 25 people, so it’s best to purchase tickets online for $20.

Planting Your Warm-Season Garden is a class offered by Geri Miller of Home Grown Edible Landscapes at the Cook’s Garden, 1033 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. The course, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., covers how to plan and plant a warm-season garden with instruction on soil prep, drip irrigation, and a hands-on opportunity to practice planting in the demonstration garden.

May 7-8Geranium Society of Los Angeles Mother’s Day Weekend Show & Sale is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Ayres Hall in the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave. in Arcadia. The show and sale feature multiple varieties of geraniums and pelargoniums. Free with $15 admission to the Arboretum ($11 for seniors 62+ and students, $5 for children ages 5-12, free to members and children under 5). Purchase tickets online.

May 7-June 12 San Diego Botanic Gardens World of Orchids show daily except Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Quail Gardens Drive and Ecke Ranch Road in Encinitas. Reservations are recommended. Note that the orchid show is open to members only on Sundays and Mondays from 9 to 10 a.m. Admission is $18 ($12 for seniors, military, and students, $10 for children ages 3-17, and free to children under three and members).

May 8 The South Coast Cactus & Succulent Society presents a talk by Long Beach cactus grower Gary Duke about the native cactus he found during his travels to northern Argentina in 2021. The free program starts at 1 p.m. at the Peninsula Center Library Community Room, 701 Silver Spur Road in Rolling Hills Estates.

May 10 Orange County Organic Gardening Club presentation about plant propagation at 7 p.m. in the Silo Building at the Orange County Fairgrounds, 88 Fair Drive in Costa Mesa. Club member Lisa Bui explains how to expand your garden holdings by taking cuttings and propagating plants. Admission is free.

May 12, 19Native Plant Maintenance Basics, a walk and talk through the Theodore Payne Foundation’s demonstration gardens about summer maintenance practices for California native plants, which often go dormant during the region’s hottest months. The May 12 class will be led by horticulturist Alejandro Lemus, assistant manager of the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery. Erik Blank, a native plant enthusiast with professional experience in the restoration, installation, and maintenance of native plant gardens, teaches the May 19 class. Both are from 9 to 10 a.m. at 10459 Tuxford St. in Sun Valley. Purchase tickets in advance online for $15 ($12 for members). Participants should wear closed-toe shoes and long pants and be prepared for up to one hour of walking on sometimes steep and uneven surfaces. Water bottles and sun protection are recommended.

May 13Native Seed-Starting Workshop at the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery, taught by Tim Becker, the foundation’s director of horticulture. Learn how to propagate native plants from seed, focusing on desert plants, during this hands-on workshop from 9 a.m. to noon at 10459 Tuxford St. in Sun Valley. Each student will take home a flat of seeds they’ve sown. Participants should come prepared for three hours of standing and up to a mile of walking in the sun; wear closed-toe shoes and bring water. Register online; tickets are $65 ($50 for members).

Drought-tolerant gardening presentation by the U.C. Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Orange County from 6 to 7 p.m. at the East Anaheim Community Center, 8201 E. Santa Ana Canyon Road in Anaheim. The free presentation provides tips for gardening in Southern California’s Mediterranean climate, a guide to garden design, and tips for selecting and caring for drought-tolerant plants.

May 14 Backyard Composting 101 is a composting class for beginners taught by members of L.A. Compost from 11 a.m. to noon at Fig Earth Supply, 3577 N. Figueroa St. in Mt. Washington. Capacity is limited, so it’s best to purchase tickets online for $10.

Guided Spring Bloom Tours at Descanso Gardens, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at 1418 Descanso Drive in La Cañada Flintridge. The tours are free with $15 admission ($11 for seniors 65+ and students with I.D., $5 for children ages 5-12, and free to members and children under 5). No reservations are required. Meet at the Center Circle.

May 14, 28, June 11, 25Mindful Garden Design: A four-part course in using regenerative practices to create a garden taught by aan arborist, contractor, climate activist, and landscape architect Shawn Maestretti at the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery, 10459 Tuxford St. in Sun Valley, from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each day. The course will cover multiple topics, including elements of design, permaculture techniques, and green waste reduction, as well as how to capture rainwater, build living soil, design with native and climate-appropriate plants, and repurpose materials. Registering online for the course costs $550 ($400 for members).

May 15 City of Beverly Hills Community Services presents Gardening for Caregivers, a workshop for parents, relatives, friends, and caregivers about how to garden with people with disabilities related to age, dementia, mental illness, autism, or other conditions that require caregiving. Instructor George Pessin and wellness professional Pamela Korst will teach the class from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Greystone Mansion & Gardens, 905 Loma Vista in Beverly Hills. Tickets are $15 ( $12 for residents of Beverly Hills).

May 18Gardening with California native plants by the U.C. Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Orange County, 6 to 8 p.m. at the West Anaheim Youth Center, 320 S. Beach Blvd. in Anaheim. This free presentation includes information about how to create a garden of California native plants that build habitat for local wildlife while reducing water use and chemical fertilization. (This class will be repeated in Spanish at the same time and location on May 19.)