Royal Botanical Gardens Ontario: A Green Gem. On the border of rock-hard Hamilton lies a startling green paradise. Learn about the history, features and special events here.
It’s hard to pinpoint the most impressive aspect of this garden. Is it the dizzying perfume of the world’s largest lilac dell? The thrilling sight of Great Blue Herons flipping fish into their beaks in the marshes of Cootes’ Paradise?
The brief, breath-taking explosion of 100,000 tulips in the Rock Garden every spring?
Or just the surprising fact that such a natural sanctuary and beauty spot survives here, in the industrial heartland of Ontario, on the soft green border of that rock-hard town, Hamilton?
The Royal Botanical Gardens Ontario, the largest of its kind in Canada, grew out of rather humble roots: a Lake Ontario marsh lined with boathouses, tin shacks and the odd illicit gambling den, plus another smaller, equally unpromising parcel of land—an abandoned gravel pit.
Back in the 1920s, these two plots fell under the watchful and creative eye of Hamilton bureaucrat and local politician Thomas B. McQuesten, whose family home is now a museum in Hamilton: Whitehern Museum.
Through clever political maneuvers, McQuesten cobbled together these and other nearby chunks of land to form what is today a rambling collection of 2,700 acres of green space—300 cultivated and 2,400 acres of untamed wilderness made up of wetland, woods and fallow fields.
It’s this diversity – the unique mélange of wild and tame nature – that makes the Royal Botanical Gardens Ontario stand out from traditional botanical gardens, which usually feature highly cultivated plants in more-or-the-less formal settings.
First for the "wilder" area: Cootes Paradise, which is haunted, some say, by the memory of squatters evicted during the dark days of the Depression. Today it is one of the most significant marshland restorations in North America.
Here you can watch Scarlet Tanangers, cuckoos, swallows, heron, geese, ducks, and cormorants at play. These conservation lands contain nearly 1,000 wild species of plants, making this area one of the most biologically diverse in the province—surprising news when you consider it’s located in a region so long settled (and trampled upon) by humans.
If you’re lucky you might even spot roving deer, muskrats and other wildlife on your trek along the trails, which extend for more than 30 kilometres.
Next, the cultivated region of the gardens! Here you can enjoy massive collections of irises and more than 2,500 rose bushes. Examine the most promising new annuals in the trial beds and the recent All American Selection winners.
Above: The rose gardens at the RBG
Laking Garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens features planted beds of irises and peonies which are heavenly scented and a feast for the eyes.
Visit the recently renovated Rock Garden, which was built with relief labour in the early dirty 30s.
There's also a large greenhouse at the RBG Centre. It boasts a fragrant year-round bulb room and a collection of weird-shaped cactus plants and succulents.
If you have a bent for the bizarre, check out the extraterrestrial appearance of the plants at the orchid show hosted here every winter.
There's also a lovely toy train set made of all-natural materials in the greenhouse. On special occasions, they set it running.
Restaurants include a charming tea room in the Rose Garden, a cafe in the Rock Garden centre, and a small cafe inside the main Visitor Centre building. Call ahead for exact dates and hours of operation or check the web site (below). The book/giftshop in the main visitor centre has a good selection of books dealing with nature and local history.
There is also a shuttle bus that runs certain weekend days during the summer; call ahead to check which days or check their web site.
The garden hosts concerts (jazz and classical during the summer), art shows and public lectures. Annual festivals celebrate different types of plants such as The Lilac Festival.
The street address is 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario but it's right on the border of Burlington and Hamilton and some of the territory is within the city of Hamilton. Hamilton is the largest nearest city.
Located mid-way between Toronto and Niagara Falls just off the highway so it's very easy to find. Just watch for the signs.
Check the Royal Botanical Gardens web site: www.rbg.ca. Or call 905-527-1158.