‘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.
The wishes of George Allan have been honoured to this day. All are welcome to visit – free of charge – every day of the year.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From here you have a choice of paths around the island that leads to the pond at the south end of the greenhouse.
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.’
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!