Vancouver’s climate is one that gardeners at the minimum envy. It’s cold enough so that fruits like apples or pears get the chill down they need to prosper. Summers are warm enough for an explosion of plants to grow and flower. Yet they are not hot enough to sear the profusion of greenery. Not only does Vancouver have lush and prolific home gardens, but it also has two very fine botanical gardens, Van Dusen and University of British Columbia’s, not to mention Queen Elizabeth Park, a naturalized park that could qualify as a third.
Both botanical gardens are high on my list of places to visit. Similar in many ways, they are also distinctly different in what they offer to the dedicated plant grower or the casually interested visitor who just likes pretty flowers.
One, the closest to downtown, is the VanDusen Botanical Garden on Oak Street. Admissions and memberships fund the garden through the VanDusen Botanical Garden Association and the Vancouver Park Board, though it has a complex history from the time it was a logging site owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased in the 1960s by the man after whom it is named.
VanDusen is aimed – and this is my guess – at a broader segment of the public. It’s walking paths a paved and relatively easy to negotiate. For those who can’t walk so well, there are wheel chairs available for borrowing. A splendid, formal rose garden is a centerpiece with a plethora of subcategories like the small group of Portland roses or, with a bow to British Columbia’s unmatched climate for the breed: Canadian -bred roses. I’d been to the rose garden in Portland, but didn’t realize there was a distinct category named for the Oregon city. George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation has a formal herb and flower garden artistically framed by walks in the European fashion of strict formality and VanDusen’s formal rose garden falls into that mode. There also is a more natural heritage rose garden.
But there are also large naturalized sections for such as heathers, the badge of Scotland; the north American west or South America. Some specialized displays have seasonal features, as those for plants of eastern North America that glow orange in autumn. At the other end of the spectrum is a maze for turning loose youngsters overcome with boredom.
Kids have their own interests. My grandson, heading for third grade next fall, was fascinated by the carnivorous plants, those with ingenious recesses at the bottom of their flowers the hold enough water to drown a small insect that doesn’t realize how slippery the walls are until it is trapped in the bottom. My baby granddaughter took a pleasanter path. She was fascinated by the water lilies which spread over parts of several lakes and ponds in the landscape — often sporting ducks, enhancing the beauty of the landscaping. An equally important design feature is the mix of thick plantings amid a soul-satisfying sweeps of open lawn, planted with large and familiar trees trees, particularly maple.
The other major botanical garden is that of the University of British Columbia that overlooks the Strait of Georgia at the westernmost limits of Vancouver. Though it is easily appreciated by the casual visitor, it has a more scientific thrust, with a well-earned nod to the early plant explorers. These hardy plant scientists ranged through the wilds of Tibet, the Himalayas and China to bring back to North America some of our most popular species. Rhododendrons are a prime example.
That doesn’t include the American plantsman John Bartram who explored the American south when it was still a wilderness. There he found one of the most beautiful trees in existence that he named the franklinia after his friend Benjamin Franklin. The tree he found on the banks of a small river in the state of Georgia has never been found again in the wild though it still is cultivated (with difficulty).
The university botanical garden is more rustic than VanDusen. It’s trails are often tanbark, not paved and the terrain is hillier. Forest-like paths or trails split off from these and lead to some specialized sites that give a more naturalized aura than VanDusen. Nevertheless the handicapped have a lifeline there, too: (wheelchairs or) electric carts that can be chartered. Unlike VanDusen, the trees and shrubs and their smaller cousins are often thickly grown, like the British Columbia version of the African jungle. Those forest paths into special collections are paths in the full sense — not for the handicapped even with carts.
Yet the university garden has an advantage. It’s specimen plants are usually and meticulously labelled, although primarily with the Latin botanical name. VanDusen’s often have the common name that most of us use and buy at the plant store, but there are not always labels. That’s no big deal for most visitors though the plant aficionado may want to know.
What the university garden has that VanDusen does not is a section devoted to fruit trees and vegetables. My original assumption was that, in its scientific vein, this was a plant breeding site for serving professional as well as amateur growers. Not so.
Fruit trees– apples, pears and figs predominantly–and vegetables like kohlrabi with its baseball-size purple fruit, broccoli, mustard, herbs, onions and lots more are bought from commercial growers not bred there. Much is this is aimed at festivals at harvest time and for supplying shelters for the homeless and hungry with fresh grown food. Nevertheless, the food plants are not without plant technology. Fruit trees are grafted onto dwarfing root stocks like those from the famous British experimental station at Malling (or East Malling as I knew it in my orchard days). They are espalied on fences six feet or so tall. That is they are trained in such as flattened fan shapes to make the fruit easy to spray and pick. Or for really easy picking, they are trained on low, shin-high wires where the harvester just has to bend over to pick the crop.
My first-grade granddaughter much liked the fruit and vegetable garden, especially, to my surprise the broccoli. Not far behind was the kohlrabi. But the kiwi fruit, also espalied among the pears and apples, fascinated her as well. The immense Himalayan lily, taller than a man and in full bloom with white Easter trumpets intrigued her as well. As a child, of course, the pedestrian tunnel under the road the divides the grounds, was an even bigger hit.
So for the bottom line: which garden to choose?
For aesthetics, probably VanDusen. The landscaping and sweep of the lawns interspersed with ponds is gorgeous and when the bedding plants or shrubs or trees are in bloom it is a spectacular sight. The plant collection has an advantage, too: it homes in on plants native to or that can be grown well in British Columbia. There also is an upscale restaurant, though pricey for families with children in tow.
Don ‘t forget the rose garden either. Not only is it a fulsome collection, but catholic in the varietal sense. Besides, the fragrance at bloom time is not to be overlooked either.
The university garden is for the more technically minded — a bit more anyway. Those into plant exploration and origins will find it to their liking. Though I couldn’t count, I am guessing that the sheer number of different kinds of plants is larger. Importantly, it has a kid’s route. My granddaughter didn’t have much trouble dealing with the distances, however. In VanDusen , fun as it may be, it is a significant walk and younger kids might lose heart before they get there.
Of the two, VanDusen is closer and easier to get to on a bus. Those with a car won’t find it makes that much difference. And Spanish Banks is close and so is the University’s Museum of Anthropology, which is well worth a visit on its own.
Both Vancouver gardens are world class. I’ve been to the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. It is hilly and naturalized and is renowned for the kind of thing the University garden does. Plant collectors in the 19th Century brought back specimens from western North America and Asia to test at Arnold how well they would grow in the United States. Most did just fine. UBC’s collection stands up well in comparison.
The U.S. Arboretum in Washington is vast and in the landscaping mode of VanDusen. Driving around was a better choice here than walking. Although I remember herbs there, it mostly is trees and shrubs. VanDusen has the edge in landscaping breadth and beauty and in its variety of flowering plants for bedding as well as shrubs and trees.
Each Vancouver garden, then, is well worth a visit.