Winter gardens are a great escape

In the dark of winter, a visit to a garden which never freezes can give a cold, weary soul a real boost. For a while, you can forget the ice, snow and those winter blahs, and enjoy the illusion of an early spring.

Ontario is blessed with a wide variety of easily accessible winter gardens. The largest consist of several linked glass houses with light, temperature, and humidity designed for specific plant groups — you may see a huge banana tree with real fruit in one, or desert plants in another. Some host ponds with koi carp, waterfalls and fountains. There are also seasonal displays of spring bulbs in late winter, and Christmas plants in November and December — and after having wandered around for just a few minutes, your coat will be off and you’ll feel a darn sight cheerier.

Ontario’s greenhouses are generally owned and operated by government parks departments or non-profit organizations. Admission is usually free, or a nominal donation may be requested. Opening hours vary considerably, and some greenhouses even rent their space for wedding photographs — so check with the facility you wish to visit before setting out. Here are some of the winter gardens where I’ve joyed an escape from winter if only for an hour or two.

Blooming downtown
In downtown Toronto, the six greenhouses of Allan Gardens provide a visual delight of permanent plantings and seasonal displays all winter long. There’s been a conservatory on this site for over 100 years, and the oldest of the present buildings was constructed in 1909. Some of the plants are more than 90 years old, and the larger ones look as though they’re about to burst through the glass roof some 30 feet up. Each greenhouse has its own specialty, so you’ll find a collection of orchids and bromeliads from the humid tropics in one, while another houses cacti and other succulents from the world’s deserts.

The Niagara Parks Commission has a relatively new (1980) greenhouse open to the public just south of the Falls, complete with tropical plants, seasonal floral displays — and a resident flock of hummingbirds. And the new Butterfly Conservatory on the Niagara Parkway north of the Falls became an instant success the minute it opened, and is well worth a visit.

The Mediterranean greenhouse at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington is another must-see facility, but it differs from others because it specializes in plants indigenous to Mediterranean climates (cool, wet winters; hot, dry summers). According to gardener Kirk Bell, this climate type was chosen because of the similar light conditions of southern Ontario and the Mediterranean.

However, temperature and humidity are controlled to replicate the Mediterranean weather (not ours!), so in winter this greenhouse does not greet the visitor with a blast of hot, humid air. It’s cool and moist, and the plants thrive.

In the Oakville Municipal Greenhouse, I got some idea of the size a Norfolk Island Pine can reach. There are three large specimens, their top branches just inches from the 25′ glass roof — and supervisor Tim Rivers says they’ve already been pruned twice. Beneath the trees, there’s an assortment of tropical and desert foliage and flowering plants with a waterfall and a pond well-stocked with fish.

Capital flora
At Rideau Hall in Ottawa, you can combine a tour of the Governor General’s residence with a visit to the greenhouses at certain times of the year. Manager Ed Lawrence’s staff provide the interior plants, flower arrangements, and some of the outdoor displays for the Government of Canada’s official residences in Ottawa.

Next page: More gardens across Canada

More indoor gardens across Canada include: 
The University of British Columbia botanical garden is the oldest continuously operating university garden of its type. They welcome visitors throughout the year. They have an Asian garden and an Alpine garden, among others. They are open from 10 am to 3 pm every day.

The Butterfly Gardens in Victoria will open again at the end of February, 2005. The spectacular flowering plants and foliage, fascinating birds, waterfalls and stream all contribute to make this a photographer’s paradise.

The Devonian Botanic Garden in Calgary encorporates the largest indoor garden in the province. It’s free and is open 9 am to 9 pm every day. It houses 20,000 plants representing more than 135 varieties of flora.

The Assiniboine Park Conservatory in Winnipeg features indoor gardens including a tropical palm house, with tropical trees, exotic plants and flowering plants in a garden setting. It’s also the longest established conservatory in Western Canada. It’s open 9:00am – 4:30pm in the winter.

In Quebec there is of course the Montreal Botanical Garden – one of the world’s largest and most spectacular.  It was founded in 1931 as a project to employ out of work Montrealers. Both it and the Insectarium are open 9 am to 5 pm, but are closed on Mondays.