© Janet Davis
Once every year – sometime between May and September -- I get on the train in Toronto and head east to Montreal to stay overnight, then spend the entire following day at the magnificent Jardin Botanique de Montréal – the Montréal Botanical Garden. Though I’ve done this for five years, I have yet to see more than two-thirds of the garden. Ranked as one of the largest in the world, the grounds stretch over approximately 75 hectares (181 acres).
And no matter when I visit – even in the rain -- I am filled with joy that a garden so beautiful and so truly world-class, in every sense of that overused phrase, is just five hours away.
The Jardin Botanique de Montréal was founded almost 75 years ago by Brother Marie-Victorin, Born in 1885 as Conrad Kirouack, the son of a successful Quebec City merchant, he joined the Christian Brothers of Mont-Lasalle de Maisonneuve, eventually becoming a teacher at Longueil Collège. The young brother had a gift for teaching, but he had another passion too: botany. In his spare time, he began studying the flora of the Laurentian Shield, a hobby that would culminate in his 1935 masterpiece, La Flore Laurentienne. He was 35 years old when he founded the Botanical Institute of the Université de Montréal in 1920, also eventually founding the francophone branch of The Canadian Society of Natural History and the French-Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science.
But Brother Marie-Victorin’s fervent wish was for a great botanical garden for the people of Montreal, a dream that he spent years promoting to business groups and politicians. In 1929, as president of the Biological Society of Montreal, he spoke of it in a speech heard by one of his former students, Montreal’s colourful mayor Camilien Houde. The decision was made to proceed, and in 1931, the Jardin Botanique was founded.
Like the rest of North America, Montreal was in the grip of the Great Depression, and the huge project allowed the mayor to put many of the unemployed to work. But the garden’s birth did not go smoothly. When Camilien Houde was ousted as mayor in 1933, all construction ground to a halt. In the spring of 1936, with Houde back in the mayor’s chair, American Henry Teuscher installed as the garden’s landscape architect and chief horticulturist, and Brother Marie-Victorin appointed as its first Director, construction began again. The garden was officially opened to the public in 1938.
Tragically, Brother Marie-Victorian died in a car accident just before his 60th birthday while returning from a botanizing trip where he had discovered a new species of heather.
In an interesting bit of historical symmetry, another colorful and pro-active director of the Montreal Botanical Gardens was Pierre Bourque, whose tenure lasted from 1980 to 1994. And, like Camilien Houde, he was also Mayor of Montreal, serving from 1994 to 2001.
There is so much to see at the Montreal Botanical Garden and the site is so vast that it’s wise to plan your trip in advance and arrive as the gates open at 9 a.m. Once in the garden, you can take a tram tour through the grounds to decide where you want to concentrate your time for the duration of your visit.
Without a doubt, my favorite spot to while away an entire morning is the fabulous Perennial Garden. Here you can see a huge collection of herbaceous plants – many of them new to commerce – used in handsome combinations that offer something to catch the eye from spring to fall. The oldest of the exhibition gardens, this is a long space running parallel to Pie-XIV. Classically set out, it features pergolas, fountains, benches and numerous expansive perennial beds and borders in all shapes and sizes. From the Oriental poppies, veronica, columbine and sweet William of June through the monarda, Echinacea, phlox and heliopsis of July, to the asters, sedums and swishing ornamental grasses of late summer, this is simply the best perennial garden I have seen in any botanical garden I’ve visited.
If you’re a fan of vibrant canna lilies or dahlias, you’ll also delight in the trial beds contained in the Perennial Garden where these tender summer-flowering plants are grown to perfection.
Another “must-see” is the Flowery Brook, a garden designed in the naturalistic English landscape style championed by Gertrude Jekyll but surely inspired by the romance of Monet’s Giverny. Featuring a collection of native North American trees and overlooking a lake with a meandering brook crossed by rustic bridges, this is a dreamy collection of bearded and Siberian iris and herbaceous peonies in a rainbow of colors. Later in the season, lilies and daylilies burst into bloom here.
The genius of the Montreal Botanical Garden is in how it fulfils its mission statement creatively in the landscape. For instance, its first goal is to take visitors on a voyage through the plant world, inviting them to discover different cultures as they journey the site. Three gardens do this in spectacular style.
The Chinese Dream Lake Garden is the largest of its kind outside Asia. Arrayed dramatically around a central lake, it was inspired by private gardens in the Yangtze River region during the Ming Dynasty. Opened in 1991, it represents a unique bond between the Shanghai Parks Department and Montreal Botanical Garden, evident in the fact that all of the architectural components were shipped from Shanghai to Canada in 120 containers and assembled at the site by 50 Chinese workers. Designed by Le Weizhong (at the time director of the Shanghai Institute of Landscape Design and Architecture), it features a 30-foot high mountain crafted from 3000 tonnes of stone; several pavilions and courtyards, including one housing a beautiful display of penjing shrubs and trees; and a large lake – the feminine “yin” to the mountain’s masculine “yang”. The garden contains many plants native to China including flowering almond, bamboo, ginkgo and dawn redwood tree, Chinese lilac, hosta and tree peony.
The serene Japanese Garden stretches over 2.5 hectares and incorporates the traditional elements of stone, water and plants. Designed by Ken Nakajima and opened in 1989, it is a typical stroll garden, inviting visitors to embark on a journey of contemplation, past stones set carefully to suggest mountains and valleys; around ponds and along streams that reflect the sky and clouds overhead; over arched or zigzag bridges; and through simple gardens featuring Japanese tree peonies, maples, irises and other plants A traditional Zen garden features eleven rare peridotite stones, found by Mr. Nakajima at a mine in Thetford, and set like islands in a sea of Shirakawa sand. At the heart of the Bonsai Garden is a collection of thirty bonsai trees ranging in age from 25 to 250 years donated by the Nippon Bonsai Association. The newest addition to the garden is the Tea Garden, adjacent to the Japanese Pavilion in which garden visitors can participate in a traditional tea ceremony. Opened in 2002 and financed by Toyota Canada, the garden contains typical tea ceremony ritual components such as the stone lantern, the tsukubai for washing the hands (read more about Japanese water elements) and plants donated by the city of Hiroshima. Though Japanese flowering cherry trees are too tender for Montreal’s severe winters, crabapple trees stand in to provide the ephemeral blossoms of spring so important in the Japanese landscape.
The First-Nations Garden opened in August 2001 at a cost of $3.5 million, fulfilled a special dream of founder Brother Marie-Victorin. Says the current director of the botanical garden, Jean-Jacques Lincourt: “The First Nations Garden avoids stereotypes; it is a contemporary garden, one inspired by Amerindian and Inuit cultures. It highlights not only Native knowledge of plants, but also First Nations activities relating to the plant word, from gathering food and medicinal plants to using wood and trees to make things and build and transport their homes, and growing plants, mainly squash and beans.” The five zones of the garden are: the hardwood forest, the softwood forest, the Nordic zone, interpretation pavilion and the gathering area. Although much of the garden’s forest framework was already in place, including trees planted in the 1960s, the challenge in designing it was to “be guided by Mother Nature” in arranging 300 species of plants as they might grow together in nature. That meant collecting many plants in the wild, under strict guidelines that permitted gathering only on sites slated for clearing and development. And it meant sourcing heritage seeds of edible plants such as corn and squash from the Quebec First-Nations people who had grown them for generations. For the growing number of gardeners interested in learning more about the culture of our founding nations, or in restoring or recreating ecologically sound landscapes, the First-Nations Garden will offer much inspiration. (For a different interpretation of a First-Nations landscape in Saskatchewan, read about Wanuskewin Heritage Park.)
There is much, much more to see at Montreal Botanical Gardens, including:
· the Courtyard of the Senses, appealing to our sense of smell, hearing, touch, sight and smell
· the 40-hectare Arboretum with its 7,000 trees and shrubs and its Tree House, an interpretive center
· the Alpine Garden
· the Lilac Collection, with its 400 fragrant shrubs
· the Rose Garden, with its 10,000 bushes
· the City Gardens with their delightful themed concepts and practical ideas for home gardeners
· the Monastery Garden
· the Medicinal Garden
· the Poisonous Plants Garden
· the Economic Plants Garden
· the Shrub Garden, a synoptic collection by family and genus
· the Youth Gardens, an educational initiative
· the Innovation Garden showcasing the latest plant introductions and design trends
· the Leslie-Hancock garden with its rhododendrons and other ericaceous plants (read more on the Hancock family and rhodos)
· the Aquatic Collection with its brimming tanks of sacred lotus and waterlily
· the bountiful vegetable and herb gardens, including the formal potager
· the Shade Garden with its spring wildflowers and astilbe, primroses, hostas and ferns
· ten greenhouses housing all kinds of tender tropical and sub-tropical plants.
As the Montreal Botanical Garden approaches its 75th anniversary, it’s interesting to look back on a speech that Brother Marie-Victorin, gave at his book launch in 1935, during the period between the garden’s abrupt closure in 1931 and resumption of construction in 1936: He was directing his comments to Camilien Houde, who had been re-elected as mayor.
“We will soon be celebrating Montreal’s 300th anniversary. You need to give a gift, a royal gift, to the City, our city. But Montréal is Ville-Marie, a woman….and you certainly can’t give her a storm sewer or a police station…. It’s obvious what you must do! Give her a corsage for her lapel. Fill her arms to overflowing with all the roses and lilies of the field.”
Happily, Brother Marie-Victorin’s wish for Montréal was granted and Ville-Marie has been smelling the sweet roses ever since.