Much like Hermey the Elf from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, Robert Zavodny always knew he was going to be a dentist. He refrained from putting that inspiration on his dental school application, though, for fear the dean wouldn’t get the joke.
During his sophomore year at Xavier University, Zavodny’s family purchased the historic Wolcott House in Kent, site of Daisy Wolcott’s famous lilac gardens. Since that winter of 1985, Zavodny and his family have worked to restore the garden to its former glory after 30 years of neglect.
“We knew some of the history of the gardens, but little evidence of them was present when we viewed the house,” he says. “It was so overgrown [with] grapevines that were four to five inches in diameter covering the trees in the lower garden. When we got the property somewhat cleared, we counted 75 lilacs.”
Zavodny does most of the garden work himself, with some help from friends and volunteers, and is delighted to once again open them to the public, as they were in the 1950s. His travels to places like the Kew Gardens of London, the Montreal Botanical Gardens, Prague Castle and International Lilac Society conventions inspire him to discover new varieties and continue to improve the gardens.
Did you have an interest in botany or gardening before moving to the Wolcott House?
BZ: I have always had an interest in gardening. In high school, I started different plants from cuttings and put in a rock garden at our old house in Independence. We also planted a large vegetable garden. I learned a lot about gardening from both of my parents, and now I learn from TV shows and gardening magazines. I never get tired of gardening. It’s the best way to relieve the stresses of my life; it’s my escape.
What is your favorite variety of lilac?
BZ: Asking me which lilac is my favorite is like asking a parent who their favorite child is. I love the magenta colored ones the best; I refer to them as wine-red. Some of the lilacs being hybridized in Russia are amazing, and I hope to acquire some of those for the garden. I also got to have a lilac named after Daisy Wolcott, which I hope to have in the garden this year.
How has the public responded to the gardens being open once again?
BZ: The most interesting comment I hear every time is [that] people can’t believe the size of the garden. The house sits in the middle of a city block, and people think it is a small city lot, but are always surprised how big and park-like it is. I also love hearing about the college students who lived in the house in the 1970s and helped save [it] from being taxed for an apartment building.
What is the International Lilac Society?
BZ: The international Lilac Society is a nonprofit organization for lilac enthusiasts [who] share their love and care for this plant. Every year they hold their Convention near a large collection of lilac gardens. This year’s was in Philadelphia.
What are some lilac facts that might surprise people?
BZ: There are over 2,000 lilac varieties, ranging in colors from white, pink, blue, violet, lavender, dark purple and magenta to a creamy yellow, and variegated flowers and leaves. Lilacs come from Europe and Asia and can range from five to 30 feet tall. The French hybridized the syringe vulgaris into many of the lilacs we see today, often called French Lilacs. The later blooming varieties came from Asia.
How does the future look for the Wolcott Gardens?
BZ: This year we are adding botanical name tags to the plants we can identify as part of our goal to turn the gardens into an educational center. I also hope to identify the 39 remaining original lilacs in the Wolcott Gardens—which will be 100 years old in 2020—and tag them. My Mom is excited to talk to visitors about her gardening experiences. She loves how much the garden has changed in the past few years and is looking forward to future garden tours.
/ Editorial Associate Sharon Cebula lives in West Akron with her very patient husband, two obnoxious cats, and an enormous collection of owl paraphernalia.