Each June, the famed lilac bushes of Mackinac Island awaken. Bursting to life in hues of purple, pink and white, they motion for the island itself to wake and erupt in explosive color as perennials stretch from their beds, and at the dock, a barge loaded with carts stacked with trays of annuals arrives from St. Ignace. These will be delivered to cottages and local shops and hotels by horse-drawn carts. It’s time for color.
The gardens of Mackinac Island are as rich with history as the island itself and each one has a story to tell, from the folklore of the introduction of lilacs to the island to the native white trillium under the shade of towering cedars to the heritage gardens and shared iris bulbs passed among generations of islanders.
The lilacs that are the heralds of the blooming months here are as much a part of the
island’s story as the famed Grand Hotel and the horse-drawn carriages and bicycles that serve as the modes of transportation. While legend attributes the introduction of lilacs here to French Jesuit missionaries, history supports the more likely theory that a New Hampshire farmer brought the fragrant bushes across the water sometime in the early 1800s. Either way, their abundance and perfume speak to all who visit to see them in bloom, many attending the annual Lilac Festival each June.
It may have been those earliest lilac bushes that inspired the effervescent spirit of gardens and gardening on Mackinac, captured by three islanders inspired to showcase this beauty in what became the stunningly photographed and expertly written book, “The Gardens of Mackinac Island,” published in 2019. The 344-page collection of photography, anecdotes, poetry and more is a grand tribute to all who currently live and garden on the island, as well as those who came before them.
One such early resident and gardening enthusiast was Milton Tootle, who in 1903, brought Japanese gardeners with him when he traveled to his cottage on Mackinac Island each summer. Tootle worked alongside the gardeners, who created a Japanese garden, a teahouse, a pagoda and bridges amidst foliage and flowering plants reminiscent of Japan.
“Mr. Tootle had a Japanese garden, and he had this massive cutting garden; it’s overgrown now. In his front yard, he had two Camperdown elms. They’re huge, they look like a bonsai tree; they’re pretty amazing,” said author Sue Allen. A lifelong islander, Allen’s own 129-year-old cottage, Ingleneuk, bears a striking display of dark pink phlox against the grand white porch on the front of the cottage. Other plantings at Ingleneuk include hydrangeas and astilbes, as well as native ferns growing wild. Like many on the island, Allen’s garden boasts heritage plants. Her mother’s iris plants still thrive and bloom each year, spreading so lushly she opted to thin the patch of them and shared them with neighbors, continuing her mother’s legacy on the island.
Something about the time-travel ambiance of Mackinac Island reminds those who call it home, even just a few months of the year, that it’s the island and nature that are the only permanent residents. As time moves forward, the faces and footsteps on the island change, and each summer is its own snapshot with the former and future revealing the changes brought about by the seasons and years.
“I think what’s interesting about this book is the voices. You have voices from the past, you have people who currently live on the island. It really shows the love that makes Mackinac beautiful. The book shows the inside spaces that you don’t see unless you’re invited in,” said photographer and publisher Jennifer Wohletz, whose own garden — complete with inviting woven hammock — is featured in the book.
This insider glimpse into the inner sanctuary of gardens is a rare opportunity not afforded to visitors of the island. In this world, the summer homes bear appellations such as Cragmere Cottage, Crane Cottage and Edgecliffe Cottage. These are the private spaces designed and nurtured by the hands of cottage owners themselves, reserved for their own time in nature the results of which are otherwise shared only with neighbors, friends and family.
Among the fortunate few to visit the private and public gardens on the island is the master designer behind much of the landscaping on the island, landscape architect Jack Barnwell. His is the most sought-after opinion for homeowners and business owners alike with nearly 75% of the properties on the island designed and/or maintained by Barnwell and his crew.
“We take care of about 200 properties on Mackinac Island and play a large part in the look of summer on Mackinac — all the flowers for Shepler’s Ferry, the state park, we take care of most of the big mansions. Everywhere you look on Mackinac, you’ll see a Barnwell employee somewhere. We do it all by bicycle and horse, everything from very large-scale projects to hardscaping, brick patios and walls; we offer everything,” said Barnwell, whose family has a 70-year history on the island. The family owns and operates the Hotel Iroquois, where his 92-year-old grandmother is at work every morning promptly at 6 a.m.
Barnwell’s work is featured in colorful photographs throughout the pages of “The Gardens of Mackinac Island,” where, among the green and gold foliage and at-home perennials like daylilies and black-eyed Susans, one of Barnwell’s go-to methods is revealed: for color, annuals are a must. While annuals bring their pop of color to flowerbeds around the island, businesses like Maeve’s Arts include them in window boxes, while others opt for hanging baskets; more than 200 hanging baskets enhance the walk along Main Street from the boardwalk to Mission Point.
“There’s gotta be a carved-out pocket for seasonal expression, and annuals are good for the soul. It’s like garden morphine,” Barnwell said. “I think (container gardens) are an accessible way for people to have a little fun with annuals, it’s a controlled environment, it’s easy to manage and maintain. … Good, high-quality containers add a lot to a front porch or patio. I plant perennial gardens all the time, I’m known for it, but annuals just make people happy.”
Islanders and visitors alike flock to Mackinac Island during the peak months for the gardens. It’s a brief window in time to be ensconced in the colors, textures, shapes and fragrances from June through August. Yet, the soul of the island is the life that sleeps in the soil when the cottages have been closed up and the last of the tourists are ferried back to the mainland.
“In the winter, the plants can sleep deeply, and they come back gangbusters,” Allen said. “Halfway through June, the gardens are like, ‘Ahhh…’ You go back later, and it’s like they’re dancing and screaming, ‘Look at me.’ They come so fast and leave so quickly, too. They’re a lesson in impermanence. That’s what gardens really are, a lesson in the impermanence of beauty.” ≈
Julie Williams is an award-winning poet and a professor at Grand Valley State University.
*Photography by Jennifer Wohletz