Toronto Star column – published January 10th, 2015
Butterflies, Roses and Bald Eagles
Last week in this column I took you to Australia for a tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne and Sydney. This week I would like to concentrate closer to home with a visit to a new botanical garden located in one of the most unlikely places: Omaha, Nebraska.
The Lauritzen Gardens – Omaha Botanical Center took me entirely by surprise. I was in the American Midwest early last spring on other business with one free day on my hands. I looked up ‘botanical gardens’ on the Internet hoping that I would find some wide open green spaces near the urban centre of the city of Omaha. Alas, the Lauritzen Gardens popped up and I called a taxi. Off I went, to the south east corner of the city, nestled next to the wide, open Missouri River.
The garden is located in a gorgeous natural setting, all 87 acres of it. As I approached the grand glassed-in entrance to the gardens’ main building I was impressed by a tour train that snaked past me quietly. It is one of those rubber-wheeled jobs, with a commentary piped through a speaker system. Perfect for people who want to enjoy a leisurely ride round the property.
I vouched for a walk, as the property is quite manageable by foot and I wanted to take my time to explore. The gardens feature a huge rose garden, a formal ‘ruins’ complete with perennials and a parterre, a children’s garden (with commensurate programs for youngsters), perennial borders and the most impressive gently curving walk flanked by large flowering crabapple trees in full and glorious bloom. I was fortunate to be there on the very day that the crab flowers were at their peak.
I took my time over a fine lunch in the restaurant and wandered up to the top of a hill to inspect some original steam-powered train engines from days gone by. This tribute to the ‘old west’ was a bonus as the gardens themselves were worth the visit on their own. Were they worth a special visit to Omaha? That would depend on the value that you place on such things. For me, yes.
The Lauritzen is only 20 years old. By usual standards it is a very young garden indeed. It was the great British landscape architect Capability Brown who said that a garden should be designed to peak in 200 years. This garden has lots of time to meet Mr. Brown’s standards and I believe that it will. You and I, unfortunately, won’t be around to witness it.
Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington
Closer to home we have a world class example of a botanical garden in Burlington/Hamilton. The Royal Botanical Gardens west of Toronto is located on a massive piece of real estate that contributes significantly to the economy and the ecology of Hamilton and Burlington. Residents there are very familiar with the formal gardens, Leslie Laking Iris garden, the children’s garden, and the most extensive rose collection in the province.
This year the RBG boasts a newly renovated Rock Garden, with a history that is tied in with romance, wedding proposals, ceremonies and the classic hand-in-hand quality time that couples of all ages enjoy from time to time. Which is a bit of a miracle as the ‘rock garden’ exists in the remnants of a gravel pit. Land that was carved out of the limestone for a couple of generations was left quite a mess. Then, 80 years ago, the ‘pit’ became the focal point of the garden by way of an aggressive design that takes full advantage of the changes in elevation throughout. Masses of plants were arranged among the rocks in such a way that it appeals to all of the senses. I encourage you to visit the newly renovated version of the ‘rock garden’ later this year. It is slated to open late this spring. Details at www.rbg.ca
The formal gardens are only a small part of the overall geography of the place. Located on over 2,000 acres, the RBG is a diverse and complex piece of real estate that can be explored any time of year. Walking and bike paths wind through mature forested areas, streams rush down hillsides, and the amazing body of water known as Cootes Paradise which breathes with an abundance of wildlife. This past season there was a nesting family of bald eagles at Cootes. Imagine that.
The Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington, stands alone in this province, indeed in the country, as an example of what can be done with foresight, imagination, and the will to carry an aggressive dream through to reality. Such a place is not created from scratch overnight or, for that matter, even in one generation. It is handed down from one generation to another, each putting their own stamp on it as it grows, matures, and becomes woven into the fabric of the greater community. Such is the RBG today, 80 years after the fist shovel full of soil was turned.
What have we learned?
It is appropriate at this point to stop and think about what we have learned from the great botanical gardens of Melbourne, Sydney, Omaha and Burlington. As I reflect on the impact each one of these amazing gardens has on its community and country I am impressed by the families who are touched by their experiences there, the bus loads of seniors and out of town guests (tourists!) who enjoy the entertainment and quiet in their visits. And then I think about our future as people.
I read recently that doctors are becoming concerned about a new generation who are developing physical maladies caused by constantly looking down while texting and e-mailing. Imagine! Chronically sore necks, stooped shoulders and who knows…early onset osteoporosis? I mention this as an example of how our society is changing.
It is true, we communicate very differently than we did just 10 years ago. We find entertainment in different forms, venues and genres. We continue to speed things up, by pushing a button or sliding our finger over a glass screen. The mother of a 2 year old told me recently that her young daughter walked up to the TV screen and wiped her finger from one side of it to the other when she wanted to change the program. So conditioned to using her iPad was she that she expected the TV to function in the same way.
I wonder what expectations that 2 year old will have when she is 10 or 21? What will ‘entertainment’ and ‘communication’ look like then?
I do not have the answers. But there is one thing that I know for sure: society will be much more in need of botanical gardens as time passes. As sure as butterflies fly, the scent of a rose inspires poetry, and the flight of a bald eagle causes us to stop, breathless, we will need botanical gardens and all that they represent.
Next week: why botanical gardens started in the first place and how Toronto may become the home to the world’s newest version of a botanical garden. Stay tuned.