Quebec’s floral splendour

The horrendous ice storm that swept through eastern Ontario and Quebec this past winter caused hardship and havoc for thousands of people. By a curious act of nature, the storm did little damage to one of Canada’s most beautiful gardens — Les Jardins de Métis, a magnificent floral display consisting of more than 50,000 flowering plants and a thousand varieties of plants, shrubs and trees spread over 40 acres.

Les Jardins de Métis is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, near Mont-Joli, between Rimouski and Matane. A screen of spruce trees provides wind protection and a microclimate of sorts is created by the nearby St. Lawrence. Fortunately, the heavy and destructive blanket of ice fell elsewhere, saving the historic gardens, ensuring a riot of fragrance and colour will burst forth in the coming weeks.

The gardens, designated a National Historic Site in 1996, are in bloom from June to October with both indigenous and exotic flowers. In early June, the first to bloom are phlox, primula, arabis and bergenia. Crabapple trees, azaleas, lilacs, columbine, day lilies and saxifrage flower in mid-June. In early July, the featured performers are blue poppies, sub roses, peonies, martagon lilies and fleabane. More blue poppies bloom in mid-July, along with spirea, hybrid roses, asiatic and trumpet lilies, campanula and delphinium. In August, the main attractions are hybrid roses, astibes, phlox, filipendula and monarda. September’s best are hydrangeas, rudbeckia, hybrid roses, oriental lilies and dwarf astilbes.

A rushing brook winds its way through the floral splendour. Gentle slopes, waterfalls and ponds frame picture-perfect arrangements of ever-changing scents and colours. Tall spruce trees shelter the most delicate blooms, displays of exquisite beauty and pathways lead visitors through open glades and leafy arbours, from one memorable visual treat to another. Benches are everywhere, allowing visitors to rest and enjoy the sights and fragrances at their leisure.

Possibly the most exotic flower at Les Jardins de Métis is the aforementioned blue poppy, the official floral emblem of these gardens. Native to the alpine meadows of the Himalayan mountains in Tibet, more than 400 of these beauties with their four sky blue petals bloom from late June to the end of July.

Les Jardins de Métis actually started out as a primitive fishing camp, where wealthy Montreal and New York families would fish for salmon on the Grand Métis River. George Stephens, the founding president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, purchased a thousand acres of wooded land along the river in 1886. Later, when he left to enter the British House of Lords as Lord Mount Stephen, he gave parcels of the land to Canadian and U.S. banking associates. But he reserved for his favourite niece, Elsie Reford, the use of the fishing lodge and chunk of wilderness at the mouth of the salmon-rich river.

In 1918, when she was 46, and a wealthy society belle in Montreal, Elsie assumed legal ownership of the 140 uncultivated acres. At first, she and her family continued to use it for hunting, fishing and horse riding. However, in the 1920s, Elsie was ordered by her doctors to take up a more sedate hobby, such as gardening.

Today’s magnificent Les Jardins de Métis is the result of Elsie’s passion for her newfound hobby. She started with a small vegetable garden and 30 years later finished with one of the finest ornamental gardens anywhere in Canada.

“I don’t think my great grandmother knew a dandelion from a daisy when she first started in 1926,” comments Alexander Reford, now the director of the gardens and the estate. “She was an amateur, but a deeply knowledgeable one by the end of her gardening career. She corresponded with horticulturists throughout North America and Europe. She planted many varieties of plants that had never been grown before in this part of the world.”

Elsie’s hobby certainly was not sedate. She worked from dawn to dusk, digging and planting shrubs and flowers, labouring alongside her gardeners and grounds staff.

However, in 1954 at the age of 84, Elsie gave the estate to her son who was unwilling to devote the time and money to keep up his mother’s epic garden and the 37-room summer home, the historic Estevan Lodge. In 1961, he sold the property to the provincial government, which used it as a tourist attraction. But by 1994 the gardens were losing money. The once-magnificent mansion was abandoned and falling down, and the government put the property up for sale.

Alexander Reford, an Oxford-trained historian, was dean of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto at that time. He was doing historical research on his great-great-grandfather and was visiting the estate when he heard about the sale. He secured financing from family members and a local business group. This partnership won the bidding with the result that, in 1995, the 32-year-old Alexander left the university to become the director of the privatized Les Jardins de Métis, overseeing the day-to-day running of the gardens and estate started by his great-grandmother more than 70 years ago.

Alexander, who had never even owned an apartment flower box, has restored the gardens and the summer lodge (built in 1887 for Lord Mount Stephen) to their former grandeur. Today, the lodge is a museum, with historic exhibits on the remarkable Elsie Reford, Lord Mount Stephen and every day life at Grand Métis when it was a social centre for wealthy English-speaking Montrealers.

Dianne McLeod, one of Canada’s leading horticulturists, has visited countless gardens in Britain, the U.S. and across Canada. “The Métis gardens are among the finest I’ve seen,” she says. “They have a beautiful, peaceful setting and a lovely, woodsy ambience as soon as you enter.”