Public Gardens

Garden of Oddness: Visiting Like a Biologist

I’m a fan of botanical gardens. I love being in a peaceful environment full of living things to observe. I love learning too, and if I could visit a different museum every week, I would! This year may be my chance: I bought my annual pass for Space for Life.

For those who don’t know, Space for Life includes the Montreal Botanical Garden, the Insectarium, the Biodome, the Planetarium, and the Biosphere.

So, at the end of February, I went to enjoy the temporary exhibition on strange plants and, frankly, it was a very enjoyable activity. I won’t reveal too much about the exhibit itself to keep you in suspense, but I’ll share some observations from the perspective of a plant-loving biologist.

In other words, I’ll allow you to enter my head for the time of an article! I apologize in advance, I didn’t take any pictures… I’m not the type to stick my nose against a screen when I’m doing something.

The flower of the red powder puff (Calliandra haematocephala).

Visiting at My Own Pace

We’re a couple of biologists eager to learn. Going around the strange garden took us an hour and a half.

We saw families with young children who were also having fun, but who made it around the greenhouse in 15 minutes.

Basically, the important thing is to experience the activity at your own pace and get the most out of it for yourself. As far as we’re concerned, we love being curious and giving ourselves time to wonder, discuss and analyze what we see. It’s a chance to share our passions; it enriches the experience even more!

The highlight of my visit was the flower of the red poweder puff (Calliandra haematocephala), a tree in the bean family. Having always visited the botanical garden in the fall, for the pumpkin ball, I’d never seen this tree in bloom (although it’s in the pumpkin display greenhouse!)

Example of questions that my spouse and I exchange in front of a plant:
-Is this bud a single flower or an inflorescence ( we’ll have to come back in two weeks…).
-It’s in the asparagus family, but it doesn’t look like anything I know…
-I want this plant! (That’s me in front of trees and begonias)
-How I would love to see UV; this flower must be especially colorful since it’s green to us!
-Do you think it breathes during the day or night?
-This plant is the cousin of conifers, look: it makes cones!

In Greenhouse Number 10: The Garden of the Oddness

When we entered the greenhouse, I was impressed by the temperature. It’s nothing extravagant, but very comfortable, and yet, gigantic tropical plants cohabit with small, fragile plants from all over the world.

(It must be said that to reach this greenhouse, you have to go through others, including the bonsai greenhouse, which is freezing, because the miniature trees are in “winter” mode and stripped of their foliage. The transition is therefore striking).

Before embarking on the tour, I observe around me: I spot plants that are residents of this greenhouse and others that are there for the exhibition. Some are huge and touch the ceiling, others are small and go unnoticed if you don’t pay attention. Everything is so well laid out that you can’t even see it. Everything looks like it has been well planted for a long time and it takes a trained eye to differentiate the additions. The gardening team has done a remarkable job!

The decoration also reinforces the immersion in the world of strange plants. It feels like a slightly cluttered laboratory, overrun with strange plants. Some are in evidence, like subjects of study, and others are there, on the ground and a little wild, as if waiting. The whole gives an impression of the lab in the animated film A Monster in Paris.

Enjoy It Throughout the Visit

Learn More From Labels

Some resident plants have an extra label to draw attention to their membership in the world of the weird: yes, it’s a banana tree, it’s there all the time, but look at its incredible size!

I like to take the time to read the names of plants: not memorize them, just read them. Sometimes I recognize a name, or a strange word catches my attention, and sometimes I forget what I read in the moment.

The goal is to take my time and not miss anything. Maybe there’s a special plant a little hidden behind a big monstera that I wouldn’t have even seen without the map. So I make sure I see ALL the maps. I paid to get in, so I’m going to get my money’s worth!

Exposition à l'Espace pour la vie de Montréal.
Photo : Jardin botanique de Montréal (Michel Tremblay)

Where to Look So You Don’t Miss Anything? Look Up!

Often, we look at the ground or at the height of our face. But higher up, there may be wonders! And the Strange Plants exhibit has a lovely way of exploiting the air space. I loved walking through a sort of tunnel with a green roof, with the tasselled flowers of my red powder puff, not to mention the decoration.

Here is the leaf of the tree with the beautiful flowers mentioned above. These are my only two photos, taken for identification with the PlantNet application…

Finally, Another Way to Get a Good Look: Come Closer!

Lean in and look closely, because some plants are tiny and easy to miss if you only look at THE plant in front of your eyes. My second favorite plant turned out to be an absolutely tiny nepenthe in a terrarium. The bells were only a few millimeters and I must have had my nose against the glass for a good minute when I finally noticed it! Thanks to the card 😉

Exposition à l'Espace pour la vie de Montréal.
Photo : Iman Taufik

They Move… Even if They’re Plants!

I really liked the technological process of the exhibition: we are given a card that allows us to answer questions or to move certain parts of the decor. Throughout the visit, it amazes the young (and not so young), in addition to reinforcing the immersion in this laboratory of the strange.

Moreover, as a scientist expert in vulgarization, I was satisfied with the information given: neither too simplified to the point where it’s not true, nor too advanced. And if you have other questions, there are staff and volunteers on hand to answer them.

It’s a very interactive and dynamic plant tour!

My Conclusions

Honestly, I was expecting to see a lot of carnivorous plants. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in fact, some real research was done to present other “strange” types of plants, in addition to those intriguing insect eaters.

I liked thinking “well, yeah, there’s bound to be a lithops somewhere!” and feeling that I was somehow in sync with the team that created the exhibit.

But I was also quite happy to discover plants with a strange name, a resemblance to an animal, or an odd shape. Plants that are new (or not) to me, but that allowed me to stop for a moment and look at them in a new light. “Yes, I have this plant at home, but wow: I never noticed that…”

I had the pleasure of stopping many times in front of a plant and debating “is it a flower, an inflorescence, a bud?” Sometimes seeing strange things is enough, but I, for one, like to understand. I found myself balancing precariously, or downright on my knees with my head up, to take in the subtleties of the plants on display.

Occasionally I would want more information, so I would pull out my phone to look up how a plant’s reproduction works. If I had waited until after the tour, I would have forgotten, and anyway, I could stay until closing time: I was going to take the time to do some research. That’s curiosity!

I had a nice chat with a volunteer, I saw people raving, I learned things (you never stop learning) and I had a very nice day.


If you plan to go, hurry up, because it ends on April 30th. But above all, don’t forget to go to the orchid greenhouse. I had never been in the greenhouses at this time of the year and it was a pleasure to see all these multicolored flowers with sometimes extravagant shapes. I saw some species whose flowers I had only seen in pictures.

What do you want? I may prefer beautiful foliage, but the flowers of orchids are wonders of nature. And they are sometimes… strange!

Plante vue à l'exposition de l'Espace pour la vie de Montréal.
Photo : Madison Inouye

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

5 comments on “Garden of Oddness: Visiting Like a Biologist

  1. It’s incredible how even the tiniest plants can captivate us if we take the time to observe them closely.

  2. Enjoyed the perspective!

  3. I love the ‘oddness’ of some plants. The wonders are always there. Sounds like a fabulous exhibit.

  4. Dorval Garen Club

    Very inspiring and educational Audrey. Yes there is always something to learn! And as you mention different things to see when one goes at different times of the year.

  5. I’d love to visit these greenhouses when I am next in Montreal. I have no idea when that will be but I’m hoping for a similar display. So It may be in spring time.

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