A Garden of Dreams
by Mary Soderstrom
You may be dazzled by flowers when you enter the Jardin botanique de Montréal through its Jardins d’accueil. That’s the idea of course. Depending on the season, the display of tulips, or begonias, or rudbeckia or whatever greets you in carefully planted formal beds. The colours, the textures and the odours of the flowers grab your attention. At noon on a sunny day of high summer, the experience can be dizzying.
But don’t let it blind you. Be sure as you enter to look over to your right, where a line of trees screens the garden from the parking lot and Sherbrooke St. You’ll see a tall statue of the man who dreamed this garden up, Frère Marie-Victorin. He is an example as wonderful as the garden itself is wonderful of how having passion and foresight can create marvels.
Born Conrad Kirouac, Marie-Victorin was a member of the Christian Brothers teaching order and a devoted, committed naturalist. He believed both in the importance of teaching natural science and the necessity of having a beautiful, accessible place where people could enjoy and study nature. In the early 1930s he was convinced that the best way to do that in Montreal would be to create a botanical garden. It would be the first one laid out anywhere in a generation and he enlisted Henry Teuscher, a landscape architect at the New York Botanical Garden, to help him dream it into reality.
Teuscher was so enthusiastic that he worked on the design for at least two years before coming to Montreal: it took Marie-Victorin that long to raise the money to hire him formally. Funds were in short supply, so Marie-Victorin campaigned tirelessly for financing, arguing that the garden would be the perfect way to celebrate the city’s tricentennial anniversary in 1942. Well before then, however, a worldwide disaster—the Great Depression—paved the way for the garden’s construction. With millions unemployed, governments sought ways to put people to work. By 1937 more than half a million dollars had been promised for a make-work program to build the garden, and 3,000 men were hired. Because the plans were ready, work began “simultaneously on both ends as well as the in the middle,” Teuscher wrote later. It was a case of a cloud having a silver lining, or, to use a botanical metaphor, making hay while the sun shines.
Costs would rise to $11 million by 1940, the equivalent today over more than $200 million, an enormous amount for the time, and spent chiefly on the wages of the workers who transformed what had been an ordinary park into a garden designed to inspire everyone.
Many of the elements of that original plan remain, including two of my favourites, the lake and the Alpine garden which lie a pleasant stroll from the entrance.
Their existence is closely linked because the dirt and rocks excavated by men working mainly with shovels were hauled a short distance to form the hill on which mountain plants from all over the world now thrive.
Something to think about in these days of the new normal. Tough times can bring out the best in us, good dreams can become reality, beauty enriches us all. As Voltaire said: “We must cultivate our garden.”
Sources: Decades of afternoons spent in the Jardin botanique as well as Étude historique et analyse patrimoinial du Jardin botanique du Montréal by Jacques Des Roches (Quebec Ministère de la culture et des communications, 1995) and Le Jardin botanique de Montréal; esquisse d’une histoire by André Bouchard (Fides: Montréal, 1998).
Mary Soderstrom’s Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens was published by Véhicule Press (2006 edition: ISBN13: 9781550652130)