Christmas Under Glass

‘Twas in the mid 19th century when a wise and generous man – an unmarried man with no children or relatives to share his wealth with – decided to give five acres of his property to the Toronto Horticultural Society.  His only condition was that the land be used for the benefit and enjoyment of all the citizens for ever after.


Allan Gardens.  An oasis of tranquillity and tropical beauty in the heart of downtown Toronto, surrounded by towering condo and office buildings – and cranes for more.

The wishes of George Allan have been honoured to this day.  All are welcome to visit – free of charge – every day of the year.


On the other side of the fogged up windows, a lush, tropical oasis.

The gardeners spend months preparing four fabulous, seasonal displays.  It’s hard to pick a favourite. Maybe spring.  After months of dull, gray skies and slush and bare, lifeless-looking trees and bushes, the bright, sunny colours of the spring ephemerals are a sight for sore eyes and a balm for a sun-and-blue-sky starved soul.  OK, maybe a touch of melodrama there, but for those of us ‘real’ Canadians who do not migrate, it’s not far off the mark.   The summer display is nice too – although it can get hot, really hot, inside – and the spectacular Chrysanthemums in the fall display will make you rethink the ‘Mum’. But if you can only make it once, the Christmas show is the one to see.


Snow-covered cabbages and faded mums by the back entrance.

The greenhouses are in the shape of a horseshoe so there is no ‘right’ way to organize your visit, but I like to start at the top of the horseshoe, in the Palm Room.


Thousands of Poinsettias – 3,200 to be exact – form a living tapestry.

Each year the Palm Room is the setting for a different theme – ‘A Victorian Christmas’,  ‘Celebrate Winter’, and for 2016, ‘The March of the Penguins’.


At the piano the leader of the band is about to begin the March of the Penguins.


For now the squirrel who likes to perch on the pianist’s nose is up to mischief somewhere else.


Facing the pianist, the rest of the band. There is a lot going on here, but if you start with the saxophonist on the right, you’ll soon make out the other players.

From the Palm Room I headed north to one of two tropical greenhouses and the Desert Room, which I was especially keen to reach before the crowds arrived.  There was a gorgeous, ripe Dragon Fruit I wanted to get a photo of.


As you walk down the ramp you are engulfed in the hot, humid air of the tropics.


Opposite the Papyrus Pond the ‘Blushing Bride’ Hibiscus adds to the show with a rare bloom that, for once, faces visitors, rather than as usual, the windows behind.


A reindeer grazes in the Poinsettia patch. Being magical he is of course immune to the plant’s highly poisonous sap.


At the far end of the greenhouse, an Earth Goddess keeps watch over the Cycad, a marvellous tree that having survived from the Jurassic Era is now endangered. Because of poaching.


A Canada Goose keeps her company.


Kalanchoe at the entrance to the Desert Greenhouse. It’s hard to believe the colourful, small plants in the foreground are botanical cousins of the contorted behemoths behind them.


A succulent wreath from a couple of Christmases before is still in fine shape.


Hanging baskets of Christmas cactus provide big splashes of colour.


Even the Jade plant has got into the spirit of things with its star-shaped flowers.

But what had happened to the Dragon Fruit?  Just a few days earlier when I was here to give a tour – and so did not have my camera with me – there were five of them.  Now there were only two and they weren’t the easiest to photograph.


The gardener had painstakingly hand-pollinated twenty-one blooms of the Dragon Fruit, aka Night Blooming Cereus, five of which had set fruit. But now there were only two.

On my way back to the Palm Room I saw one of the gardeners and asked her about the missing Dragon Fruit (Fruits?).  She got a worried look.  If it was a squirrel I would have seen traces of the fruit on the ground.  More likely it was a visitor who often takes things.  How do you know? I asked.  He shows them to us, she sighed.  In any event she said she’d go ask the gardener who took care of that greenhouse.  Maybe he knew something.


As I passed through the Palm Room a ray of sunshine momentarily lit up the Poinsettias. Notice how these ones have flowers all along their stems.

On the south side of the Palm Room is the Temperate Greenhouse.  The temperature drops noticeably as you enter.  The plants in here like to take a break from the non-stop blooming of the tropicals.  Hence the cooler temperature. But nothing below freezing point!  It will take a lot more global warming before any of them will survive a Canadian winter outdoors.


A window box of Amaryllis, Cyclamen and Kalanchoe at the entrance to the Temperate Greenhouse. How do they get them all to bloom at just the right time?

From one year to the next it’s fun to see where the props will reappear.  One year the  train chugged around a Christmas tree made of succulents in the Palm Room.  But it was just too much of a temptation for little visitors and was frequently derailed.  (The Poinsettias around the track were a little worse for wear too.)  The next year it circled around a white tree on the ‘island’ in the Temperate Greenhouse.  But that too proved irresistible.  This year the gardeners weren’t fooling around. I laughed when I saw it chugging around around an elaborate trestle.  At the back of the pond.


This year the train is well beyond the reach of little hands, although setting up the trestle in the pond was apparently a challenge.

On the other side of the path is evidence of another of the challenges the gardeners face. Frustrated with the squirrels taking off with the fruit of one of her recent purchases, a Tomarillo aka Tomato Tree from Ecuador, the gardener started to cover the newly set fruit in glass. So far so good.


These Tomarillos are already a good size. When fully ripe they will be a dark red. Fingers crossed.

From here you have a choice of paths around the island that leads to the pond at the south end of the greenhouse.


White azaleas form a carpet of ‘snow’ for Santa and his sled. From here you can just see a bit of his red coat beyond the beribboned Kashmir Cypress.


Pardon me if I appear small-minded, but doesn’t that look more like a plough horse than a reindeer? In any event, a lush blanket of white cyclamen and azaleas keeps Santa and his presents safely beyond the reach of little hands.


A prickly project.

I was fiddling with my camera settings at the edge of the pond when the gardener in charge of the Desert Room came up to me.  He was carrying one of those large buckets gardeners use to gather clippings and other detritus.  ‘It was me, he said,  I took the Dragonfruit’.  I waited for him to explain.  ‘My colleague and I ate it.’


A troupe of Koi – including a very large white one – swim around Leda and her pond.

Squirrels and a mentally fragile visitor are one thing.  But the gardeners taking off with the Dragon fruit – and EATING them!  That was – unexpected.  I stared at him.  ‘We were worried.  They were ripe, the squirrels would have got them – or they would have rotted and fallen and made a mess.  And we were curious to know what they tasted like.’  What did they taste like? I asked in as even a tone as I could muster.  (The other gardener had said something about a cross between a kiwi and a strawberry.)  ‘Like a really sweet watermelon’, he replied.  He showed me what was in his bucket.  There on the bottom were the remains of the missing fruit.


The inside skin of the Dragon fruit is the same gorgeous pink as the outside, but the edible part – now missing – is a creamy white which gives rise to another name it goes by – the Ice Cream Fruit.

I thanked him for showing me the fruits – or rather the remains of his fruity crime – and walked through the doors into the last greenhouse.   And was immediately engulfed, for a second time, in the warm, humid air of the tropics.  Bliss!


A tropical Christmas tree decorated with brightly wrapped presents out of which Amaryllis, like so many Jack-in-a Boxes, have sprung.


All these Amaryllis are double-stemmed. Some even look as if they might send up a third stem. As they say, splurge for bigger bulbs. You won’t be sorry.


Beyond the Amaryllis Jack-in-a-Boxes, the bright orange of the Firecracker Vine and the water wheel.


On the rocks by the water wheel and along the front of the shed turtles look for a bit of sun.  The gardener, who feeds the turtles as well as looks after the plants, tells me there are now 23 of them – mostly Painted Turtles and a few Painted Ear Sliders.


On the shed door the skates that had dangled from Leda’s neck in the past. I was wondering where they had got to this year.


This Cattleya and the stuff on the ground outside the greenhouses are probably neighbours on the colour spectrum. A strange congruence.

Each year there is some kind of ‘chandelier’ in this greenhouse.  They are always spectacular.  But when I first saw what the gardener was making this year, I had my doubts.  She had wired Amaryllis bulbs – bare Amaryllis bulbs – to a large metal ring so they were hanging upside down.  It reminded me of those gut-wrenching photos of chickens hung on conveyor belts.  Hmmm.   But when I came back a week later to do another tour, there was no sign of the metal ring. No hint at what was supporting the whole thing.  And as the gardener had known, the Amaryllis – the upside-down, bare bulbs – had not only flowered but were starting to curve graciously upwards.  She had done her magic again.


The Amaryllis bulb is a self-contained miracle. It will flower even if you don’t plant it in soil. Even if you don’t water it. Even if you hang it upside down!

On the back wall, close to the exit a wreath decorated in the bright, light colours of the tropics was surrounded by giant, candy-striped Amaryllis.


The best of both worlds. The bright colours of the tropics and the candy cane stripes of our winter Amaryllis.

I went out the exit and returned to reality.  But the colours and the feel of the garden stayed with me.   Here’s hoping you can visit some day.  In the meantime – Best Wishes for a lovely Holiday Season and a very Happy and Healthy New Year!




4 thoughts on “Christmas Under Glass

  1. Dear Donna,
    I have enjoyed your blogs on Italy all year and this last, local report was a good reminder that Toronto also offers some winter colour and warmth
    Thanks and regards,
    Bernice (LGS)l

    • Thanks Bernice. Allan Gardens really is a special place and the gardeners work hard, not just at Christmas but all winter long, to give us that (much-needed!) colour and warmth. Donna (For those of you who are not familiar with this local garden club, LGS stands for the ‘Leaside Garden Society’.)

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