July 21 • 09:36 PM

Sweet-scented living legacy

Sunny Fields Botanical Park a horticulturalist's dream

Horse Chestnut tree combines with ‘Dames Rocket’ wildflowers to create pretty scene at Sunny Fields. The non-profit park is looking for volunteers, members and donations to make the acreage even more spectacular. photo by Maria Brown.

June 13, 2007
Poet Walt Whitman admired their heart-shaped leaves, pointed blossoms and "mastering odor."

Monet painted people lounging under their shade. Van Gogh and Cassatt played up their beauty in simple still lifes.

Lilacs—they're the belle of spring's coming out party—arriving in a haze of fragrance and color each spring, heralding the coming summer.

Although exotic in origin, lilacs thrive throughout the world, including Michigan.

So it's only fitting that they comprise a featured collection at Emmett Township's Sunny Fields Botanical Park where the goal is "blending what is native with what it exotic," director Bill Horman says.

"We like the rustic look," he adds while maneuvering his golf cart among crabapples, pines, oaks and lilacs scattered throughout 40 acres.

Bill opened the botanical park to the public three years ago, more than 40 years after his parents purchased the former farm at the corner of Sullivan and Welch roads.

From May through June, the state's most diverse collection is in full bloom. On May 19, more than 100 guests visited Sunny Fields during a special open house.

There's also an impressive display of crabapples and daffodils each spring, but the lilacs seem to take center stage.


Bill and his parents, Elmer and Jane, brought the first lilacs to Sunny Fields by way of dividing what grew in the backyard of their Southwest Detroit home.

"They did splendidly well," he said.

Bill would go on to become a horticulturalist for the City of Detroit for 30 years. Along the way, he joined the International Lilac Society and began collecting a wide variety of lilacs and planted them at Sunny Fields.

"Most originate in Asia," Bill says.

Bill Horman shows off ‘Prince George’ crabapple. Sunny Fields has more than 130 of the ornamental trees.
"They come from China, Japan and Korea."

'French' lilacs, known by the Latin name syringa vulgaria, or the common lilac actually originates from the Balkans, Bill explains.

"The Lemoine family had a nursery in Nancy, France in the 1800s and knew there were some growing in the Balkans. They come in one color in the wild but can mutate to white," he said.

The family took specimens back to France and began hybridizing them.

Referred to the as the old-fashioned kind that European settlers brought to North America, the French are more showy than their Asian counterparts and look best for only two weeks compared to others in the collection which have a six week stand, Bill says.

There are seven accepted colors of lilacs: white, violet, blue, pink, magenta, purple and believe it or not, lilac.

Bill chuckles when it comes to explaining single and double varieties.

"The double—it's what people always want," he said.

"But the singles are more fragrant. Doubles are heavier so they hang down and because they have twice as many petals it traps the fragrance."

That's enough to make an aspiring lilac owner reconsider their choice, Bill adds, considering that lilacs are prized for their scent.

As for maintaining a prolific lilac, Bill says it's important to prune off faded flowers. Three years of successive pruning, that is cutting 2 inch diameter stems and smaller to the ground, will result in bigger flowers.

When it comes to planting or relocating, March and late October are best, Bill recommends.

"Lilacs can absorb Round-Up, they have shallow roots, so it shouldn't be used around them," he cautions.


As a member of the International Lilac Society, Bill works actively to get more lilacs in more yards.

He was part of a team that helped Mackinac Island make their lilacs more beautiful for their annual festival each June.

"They were missing the prime bloom every three years so we said we could solve that problem by giving them more species," Bill said.

Ten donors, including Bill, gave as many different types and colors of lilacs as they could find.

"Now they never miss having flowers for their festival," he said.


Although a passion, Sunny Fields is about more than just lilacs. In addition to being a botanical park, Sunny Fields also has the official titles 'wildlife sanctuary, a place for 'tranquil recreation' and 'horticultural and environmental education.'

Bill's idea to develop a botanical park came to mind the more he saw open space getting devoured by Detroit's growing borders.

"All Americans owe it to their children to put land aside for the benefit of those children and the benefit of wildlife," Bill said.

Now that it's up and running, Bill hopes the community will see Sunny Field's value.

"This will only work as a successful venture if the greater community adopts this property as their botanical park and contribute physically and financially," he said.

"We're open to all kinds of ideas on how we can preserve it."

Bill and members of Sunny Fields' administra- tive board will be making those decisions. The board includes Yale School's Superintendent Frank Johnson, Capac Schools Superintendent Jerry Jennex, Emmett Twp. Clerk Patricia Brozowski, lawyers C. Thomas Wilson and Christopher Wilson and retired farmer Henry Ohmar.

Bill has visions of clearing more of the woodlands and existing trails and constructing a visitor center complete with offices, a library and living quarters for a caretaker. A greenhouse and teaching facilities would also be key in helping the next generation learn about horticulture and conservation, Bill adds.

To make it all possible, the non-profit organization needs donations, more members and volunteers.

"We're growing, we're young and we're flexible," Bill said.

"We want to know how we can best be of service to the greater community."

From his golf cart, Bill sits back, scanning the scenery before him.

"This was all a gamble...this was all a dream," he says.

Now, he invites the community to enjoy the dream that's become reality.

Editor's note: Sunny Fields Botanical Park is open to visitors April-October. Tours are given by appointment only. The peak season for lilacs and crabapples have passed, but Sunny Field's perennials will be in bloom.

To learn more about tours, membership or volunteering, contact Bill Horman at (810) 387-2765 or (313) 886-9343.

Assistant Editor
Castle Creek
07 - 21 - 19
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