There are several reasons why the Royal Botanical Gardens is unique, the first being that it is the only botanical garden in Canada with the right to use “Royal” in its name. Two cities (Hamilton and Burlington) on the western tip of Lake Ontario claim it, which seems rather odd and can be a bit confusing, but that’s because The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is not just one big cultivated space but several separate ones.
The man behind the Gardens, Thomas Baker McQuesten, was a visionary. He was also the Minister of Highways and it happened to bother him that the entrance to the City of Hamilton was an abandoned gravel pit. So he talked the City into beautifying the entrance by turning the pit into a rock garden. That was way back in the 1920s. So the RBG was founded by a man who many years ago “arranged for the collection and protection of our natural lands right in the middle of a growing urban centre” and that “was remarkable”, says the 2012 RBG Budget Executive Summary.
The purchase of the gravel pit that became the rock garden was followed by the acquisition of a parcel that was made into the sunken garden (now the RBG’s formal entrance); then came a gift of 122 acres from the nearby Hendrie Valley Farm.
Today there are 300 cultivated acres as well as 2,300 acres left natural with walking trails running through them. The rock garden that inspired it all was closed for renovations when I was there, to re-open in the spring of 2015.
The RBG was developed by some of Canada’s “most talented landscape architects, botanists and plant curators”, and declared a site of national historic and architectural significance. Carl Borgstrom was the first landscape architect and his recommendations were largely implemented for years afterwards.
Another influential figure was Dr. Leslie Laking, RBG’s director for 35 years who developed the place into what it is today. His retirement project was writing a book about that time, Love Sweat and Soil: A History of Royal Botanical Gardens from 1930 to 1981.
Dr. Laking’s wife, Barbara, also a horticulturist, worked closely with him (although she was not on the payroll). Together they established educational programs for children, inspired by those offered by the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in New York.
Today a section of the RBG has been named after Dr. Laking. It contains a large collection of hardy herbaceous perennials that are displayed in both traditional English borders and free-flowing island beds. Nearby is a heritage garden dedicated to his wife.
There are, of course, formal gardens, a rose garden, climbing gardens, an arboretum, and a lilac garden. The lilac collection is the largest in the world. The two-acre rose garden was opened on Canada’s 100th birthday in 1967.
You need to be alert or you can miss important sections. It was a wedding that brought me to the RBG the first time, and during the break between the ceremony and reception I ran around like a crazy women trying to see as much as possible. Not the best way to do it although I did come upon a rose bush that I fell madly for. And you can accidentally find yourself wandering down one of those paths and heading towards the wetlands, as happened to me on my second visit!
The beds in the formal garden in Hendrie Park are organized along a principal axis reminiscent of Renaissance garden design.
If colour is what you’re seeking, you will find that among the “All American Selection” flower and vegetable winners.
The “Veggie Village” reflects today’s trends, encouraging visitors to grow their own.
I have recently visited several botanical gardens and have grown a bit weary of certain repeated (and often tired) themes. So it was refreshing to come upon the RBG’s “art in a natural space” sculptures.
One, by Pilar Ovalle, is a piece of driftwood found in a forest “as part of a fallen tree” and presented here as a “shout of joy”, a metaphor of the eternal cycle of life after death.
Another, by Lance Belanger and Kitty Mykka, is a mound of braided grasses that form a sculpture running through an existing natural landscape.
I was particularly enchanted by Alfio Bonanno’s water-based organic tower incorporating various species of living trees, bushes, and plants and providing a safe haven to living creatures.
The Royal Botanical Gardens is on a constant quest for funds and it seems that to successfully achieve this it must “elevate garden design to the spectacular” in order to “impart a mental image that simply cannot be forgotten” (RBG 2012 Budget Executive Summary). My fingers are crossed that the rock garden, when it is unveiled in the spring, will deliver this “best in class” visitor experience.
In the meantime Dr. Laking’s description will suffice:
“The Royal Botanical Gardens puts nature’s beauty on display, but it isn’t a park system.
It teaches but it isn’t a school.
It protects and preserves forest and marsh, but it isn’t a conservation authority.
It collects and propagates botanical knowledge and plant life, but it is not a library, museum, or laboratory.
It is all those things and more than their sum.”
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014