The Montreal Botanical Garden, with its rare and extensive collections, is considered to be one of the most important botanical gardens in the world. The rose garden itself has 10,000 specimens, some dating from before 1867 when Canada became a country. There are 4,000 species and cultivars in the alpine plant collection and its arboretum covers 40 hectares. This was all documented when the garden was designated a national historic site in 2007.
The inspiration behind the garden was Brother Marie-Victorin, who aside from being a priest was a leading scientist and President of the Société de Biologie de Montréal. In 1929 he visited botanical gardens in other parts of the world and when he returned to Montreal he was determined that one be established there. This was not an easy endeavour for the country was in the throes of the Great Depression.
There was some attempt to get the garden started but it was abandoned until 1935 when the “forward-thinking” mayor, Camilien Houde, heard Brother Marie-Victorin’s appeal:
“We will soon be celebrating Montréal’s three hundredth 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!”
Within the year Brother Marie-Victorin was appointed director and Henri Teuscher — a great landscape architect — hired as superintendent and chief horticulturalist. These were men with big ideas. This would be no ordinary botanical garden. In no time at all 2,000 men were hired and the garden infrastructure began.
A few decades later, in 1980, the Montreal Botanical Garden was the venue for the Floralies flower show, a horticultural exhibition on an international scale. This was the first time the exhibition had been held in North America and under its newly-appointed director, Pierre Bourque, this event ushered in the Montreal Botanical Garden as one of the great gardens of the world. In the following years, Bourque oversaw the establishment of the Japanese Garden, the Chinese Garden and the Insectarium.
Today the garden has thirty thematic gardens, ten large exhibition greenhouses, and a vast arboretum.
When I went to the Montreal Botanical Garden this summer, I was anxious to see the Chinese Garden because I had recently visited several famous ones in China, all UNESCO World Heritage sites. Chinese classical gardens are known for recreating the natural landscape in miniature form. They usually include small viewing houses, artificial mountains and rock gardens, a pond or lake, and flowers and trees. Each scene is carefully constructed and often hidden so that it is not revealed all at once. Structures and views are given descriptive names such as “where the wind whistles through the bamboo stalks”.
The Chinese Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden is the largest garden of its kind outside China. Shanghai is Montreal’s twin city and all elements of the garden were built in Shanghai workshops, then dismantled and shipped by sea to Montreal, where they were reassembled in 1990 by a team of expert craftsmen from Shanghai. Now that is friendship! The garden is named Dream Lake Garden, appropriately dedicated to dreams and friendship.
Many of the elements of a classical Chinese garden are here: the entrance courtyard, friendship hall, springtime courtyard, lotus pavilion, green shade pavilion, stone mountain, dream lake, tower of the condensing clouds, pavilion of infinite pleasantness, island of jade, lotus pond, and stone boat.
The descriptive names are here too. The Pavilion of Infinite Pleasantness offers “a perfect vantage point for contemplating the lotus and willows”. This garden contains old trees, considered to be veritable treasures by the Chinese, that were dug up and replanted here.
The Japanese Garden is also impressive although I have never been to Japan so can’t comment on its authenticity. They say it took two decades for it to achieve harmony, a fundamental principal of all traditional Japanese gardens. A green-coloured stone from the Quebec-region provides the framework and combines with water and plants. The Japanese pavilion is simple and blends into the garden. There is a stone lantern that symbolizes the light of knowledge.
The Shade Garden was a favourite of mine because it’s so lush and inviting with benches where you can sit and just contemplate life. Under the tall trees there are lots of hostas, epimediums, lungworts, ligularias and astilbes. In fact there are over 2,500 species and cultivars. Everyone walking the garden path seemed to get a chuckle out of the exotics that are so well placed that you’d swear they were hardy plants instead of summer-blooming annuals.
I will return in the spring when the daffodils bloom along with various species of bloodroots, jack-in-the-pulpits and trilliums that are native to Quebec.
When I come in the spring, I will spend time in the Alpine Garden. This garden takes you “on a tour of the botanical world, from the Rockies to the Himalayas, from the Alps to the Arctic tundra”. I suspect there is growing interest in these types of plants. There are also selections of pines and ground covers.
There are many more gardens. The Perennial Garden, with its mix of styles, contains close to 1,700 species and cultivars and most of them are hardy in this climate.
The annual plantings reflect the outlandish colour schemes that seem so popular today.
The First Nations Garden is dedicated to the 11 aboriginal nations that live in Quebec. In this deciduous forest one finds Saskatoon serviceberry, white oak and sugar maple trees, nuts and berries.
There’s the Monastery Garden and you need to read the signage to appreciate it. The Quebec corner displays some plants typically found in the region. The Courtyard of the Senses encourages the visitor to smell and touch the plants with your eyes closed.
The Montreal Botanical Garden (Jardin botanique Montréal) is located at 4101 Sherbrooke Street East, close to the Olympic Stadium.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014