There is a new garden you’ll certainly want visit on your next trip to Canada’s capital, Ottawa.
The Landscapes of Canada Gardens at the Canadian Museum of Nature were officially opened on Friday, June 17 2016. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was able to attend the opening as at the French-language national spokesperson for Canada’s Garden Days (June 17 , 18 and 19, 2016).
The new gardens are essentially a living botanical exhibition: its designers have recreated three different Canadian ecosystems: the arctic tundra, the boreal forest and the prairie grasslands, each with its typical vegetation. Moreover, at the northeast entrance of the garden, the organizers have worked at recreating an environment that no longer exists: a “mammoth steppe”, including mammoth sculptures sure to delight the young and not so young.
At the heart of the gardens is a giant 40-foot (13 m) stainless steel sculpture that represents an iceberg. It’s the work of the artist and adventurer Bill Lishman, famous as the man who taught geese and cranes raised in captivity how to migrate South using ultra-light aircraft, as seen in the feature film Fly Away Home.
The gardens occupy the western part of the Canadian Museum of Nature grounds, formerly a small grassy park offering no link to the diversity of nature in Canada. “It was a landscape style imported from Europe using grasses imported from Europe”, pointed out the President and CEO of the Museum, Meg Beckel, during the opening ceremony. The new garden will be just as welcoming as before, but more in keeping with the role of a museum “to collect, preserve, interpret, and display items of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the education of the public.”
A First Visit
The new gardens are essentially a rectangle of space next to the western parking lot of the Canadian Museum of Nature. A broad, handicap-accessible loop trail leads visitors around the new gardens. There are four entrances, two from the museum grounds and two from the street, but let’s imagine here you’ve started with the most popular entrance, the one near the mammoth sculptures.
The Mammoth Steppe
Although it was only opening day, I saw family after family stop at the Mammoth Steppe. They were there to see, and be photographed with, the three life-size sculptures of mammoths, easily presented to a child as the mum, the dad and the baby (although actually, it’s supposed to represent the mother protecting her baby from a rogue male). They’ve been at the Museum for years, of course, but moved here and there. Now they’ve finally found a natural home, in a mammoth-friendly environment created just for them!
The turf formerly found around their base has been torn out and replaced by plants that scientists know existed in the mammoth’s native range at the time of the last ice age 120,000 to 12000 years ago: grasses, ground-hugging shrubs, and arctic perennials (poppies, yarrow, etc.).
When I visited, the plantings seemed freshly installed, with small patches of plants that seemed to be struggling. It didn’t really look like a mammoth steppe at this point. Furthermore, the presence of large trees, maintained from the previous landscape, rather destroyed the notion of a steppe. (I know, these days, it’s not easy to cut a tree in a park without causing a public uproar, but if the idea is to create the effect of a cold, wind-battered steppe, it’s going to have to be done at some point.) Also it would take a bit of signage to explain the environment, which I was informed was coming at a future date. Otherwise, it isn’t obvious that a young family visiting the sculptures will understand the signification of the plantings. But they’ll love the mammoths!
Continuing along the trail, you next find yourself in the arctic tundra landscape, dominated by rocks of all sizes… and no trees at all (fortunately, in this case!). As in the real tundra, low-growing plants pop up here and there among the rocks: bearberry, Labrador tea, arctic anemones, etc. In the middle of the tundra is the iceberg sculpture mentioned above. It’s huge and you walk right through it. Try looking up when you’re underneath: it’s quite impressive! Judging from reactions the first day, it looks like this too will be a popular spot for a family photo or a selfie.
The tundra was the most successful part of the gardens at the time of my visit, appearing in fact surprisingly mature for a garden so recently installed. As the inauguration crowd cleared out and more typical visitors took their place, the children immediately began hopping from rock to rock… as indeed was intended. Who says learning can’t be fun?
Perfectly flat, the prairie grasslands exhibit is a fairly vast field covered with flowering plants (coneflowers, cosmos, etc.) and grasses. It’s the largest biome, occupying the center of the gardens. A small planting of aspens makes an intrusion into the prairie on one side, representing an aspen parkland, another prairie biome.
The prairie grasslands exhibit was not really in bloom when I visited in mid-June, but I take no points off for that. The plantings were dense and covered with buds, so I’m assuming it will be very colorful in just a few weeks. There was a huge number of rudbeckias (black-eyed susans) and they bloom from July right through September, so the garden ought to be spectacular when it does begin to bloom.
The last biome is the boreal forest. It’s decorated with trees, shrubs and especially conifers (larch, spruce, pine, etc.), with, at their feet, plants that typically form the undergrowth of coniferous forests (ferns, wintergreen, wood anemones, etc.).
This seemed to me the least successful of the biomes at this early stage. The conifers are very small, too young to give the impression of a forest, nor do they provide much shade, leaving some of the shade-loving forest plants looking a bit sunburned. Also, the same problem as with the Mammoth Steppe rears its unfortunate head here: huge deciduous trees of European origin, in no way connected with a boreal forest, have been preserved from the previous landscape, which doesn’t really give the new biome a chance. However, gardeners understand that trees grow and as the boreal conifers do grow and fill in, the landscape should take off. And I’m assuming that when conifers reach a more impressive size, it will be possible to eliminate some of the foreign trees that look so out of place.
One thing I really did appreciate: a dead tree has been left standing, with a few branches lying on the ground underneath to demonstrate how wood decomposes and creates new life. That in itself is a remarkable concept for a public park (in most city parks, a dead tree would have been removed immediately!), but better yet, it is lightly covered in lichens which bear identifying labels. This is the first time I’ve ever see lichens identified in a public garden. Bravo for a great idea!
There is also a line of stumps at the back of the boreal forest exhibit, designed for children to explore. While I was there, it was easy to note they found found its use very quickly and were soon jumping from stump to stump.
Admittedly, the Landscapes of Canada Gardens are a bit young, but already more than presentable, with some remarkable features, plus they will certainly will gain in beauty in beauty and interest not just over the years, but the coming weeks. It is already worth a visit, even if it is just to view the tundra, an environment that us Southerners simply never get to see and experience. And by the beginning of July, the Prairie Grasslands ought to be a carpet of bloom and in fact will probably steal the show from the Arctic Tundra next door. If you’ll be travelling to Ottawa and enjoy gardens, you’ll really want to stop and visit!
I’m giving this remarkable garden 3 ½ stars… and am looking forward to seeing it moving up in scale over time.
The Landscapes of Canada Gardens are free of charge and open daily. They are located at the corner of McLeod Street and McConnell Avenue, adjacent to the Canadian Museum of Nature at the civic address is 240 McLeod St, Ottawa. There is paid parking right next to the Gardens.
For further information: nature.ca.