At this year’s Allan Gardens Christmas Flower Show, you won’t find a single bough of holly. At least I didn’t. Instead, you’ll see plants from tropical and desert regions, as well as from our Canadian forests, all arranged in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.
I had skipped the Grand Opening festivities (Saturday December 3) – wagon rides, cider, cookies, carollers and even a visit from Santa. From past experience I knew that the sight of tripods blocking the narrow paths (not allowed! unless you have a permit, which for obvious reasons you won’t be given on a busy weekend) and proud parents plopping their precious progeny on the poinsettia borders for those perfect Christmas photos, would get me all Grinchy. No, no, no. Better to go mid-week, preferably late in the morning when any visitors would be heading off to lunch. And it had to be sunny. The displays would, undoubtedly, be as beautiful as always, but dappled sunlight and a clear blue sky in the background really bring them to life for me. As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long. The first Wednesday after the opening started off bright and sunny. The clouds, harbingers of the first snow storm to hit the city, would come later.
The five greenhouses open to the public – there is a sixth that is reserved for children’s programs and special events – are laid out in a horseshoe pattern. I started in the Tropical Greenhouse at the south end of the horse shoe. I was hoping the gardener in charge of this area had created another of her beautiful Amaryllis chandeliers.
As I continued along the paths I kept looking up, hoping to see a chandelier. Finally, at the main entrance to the greenhouse, there it was.
As I stood there trying to figure out how to take a photo, several visitors walked by, oblivious to the extravaganza dangling above them. Since the all too modest gardener had not put up a big sign – LOOK AT ME! – I did everything but block the hapless visitors from proceeding until they had given her chandelier a good look. Very unCanadian, I know.
What makes this creation especially brilliant is that it demonstrates what I suspect is a largely unknown feature of the Amaryllis. Everything it needs is in the bulb, which means that it doesn’t actually need to be planted in soil, and can bloom anywhere. Even hung upside down from a wire ring.
Orchids are the tropical gardener’s special passion, so not surprisingly, there are lots of them here all year round, suspended safely out of reach – yes, apparently not all plant lovers are content to simply admire the exotic beauties, which is why the rarest and most expensive orchids are in their own little greenhouse that only the gardener can access.
Additionally, every year for the Christmas show, the gardener comes up with a new and stunning way to show off her orchids.
As you walk through the doors to the next greenhouse the temperature drops. We’re now in the Temperate Greenhouse, where plants like cyclamen and azaleas and camellias thrive. Unlike the tropicals next door, these plants like to ‘rest’ after blooming, so they need a cool period. But never below freezing point. None of the plants in here could survive a Canadian winter outdoors. We’ll need a lot more global warming before that happens.
Leda and the swan always get special treatment. One year their pond was decorated as a skating rink. Huge, sparkling snowflakes were suspended from the ceiling and a pair of skates dangled around Leda’s neck. This year she’s on a northern Canadian lake, decorated with snowshoes and a birch bark canoe laden with gifts.
But what was the woodsy thing looking out at her from under the Norfolk Island Pine?
Tucked away at the opposite end of the greenhouse, the little Christmas train chugged around an elevated track as it had the year before, safely beyond the reach of excited little hands.
On the north side of the horseshoe are two more greenhouses. The first is home to more tropicals.
Leaving the tropics we enter the last greenhouse on the north side of the horseshoe. A hot blast of dry air announces the Arid Greenhouse, which is packed with plants of such fantastical and diverse appearance, you would think they had nothing in common. But look a little closer and you will see how they have all been shaped by the same evolutionary trajectory – attracting and preserving water.
Hanging on the opposite wall is the desert gardener’s latest creation. Typically hundreds of pins would be used to hold the plants in place, but the pins can damage the fragile roots, so this year, hoping to prolong the life of his tableau, the gardener decided to use a new, pin-free strategy.
On the opposite side of the path, amidst the festivities there is also an example of Nature’s many odd families. The red and white-flowered Kalanchoes in the foreground belong to the same botanical family as the bizarre, fan-shaped plant in the centre background.
As wonderful as the displays in these four greenhouses are, the one I most look forward to is in the Dome, the greenhouse at the top of the horseshoe. In years gone by the central area had been transformed into fantastical settings, from a Victorian fireplace with an intricate ‘succulent’ carpet to the stage for a jazz trio.
The lights I spent so much time winding around the tree frames on my balcony look nothing like the perfect spirals of Kalanchoe the gardener has wound around this tree.
On the other side of the path, an enormous apparition stretched along the length of the border.
The tail feathers of … a peacock! Two gardeners had been brought in from another conservatory to assemble the bird. It took them two weeks. How fascinating it would have been to watch them.
Wishing you Happy Holidays and the inspiration and courage in the New Year to add your own wonderful and much-needed creations to our world’s fragile cache of goodwill.