Nearer to Nature in British Columbia


East meets West in the rich soil of British Columbia. Here in Vancouver, the gardening traditions of Asia and England collide with a splashy, colorful exuberance. The hybrid results are displayed in the city's abundant collection of botanical gardens and conservatories.

You needn't be a gardener to appreciate this floriferous city. Vancouver has been called one of the most livable cities in North America, and its charming neighborhoods--the swank West End, booming Chinatown, old-fashioned Gastown and the shopping and people-watching mecca at Granville Island Public Market--are a joy in themselves. Add to that a laid-back attitude, drop-dead scenic beauty and temperate climate, and you've got a place that's easy to love. If you are a gardener, or just interested in things botanic, you'll be ready to put down roots within moments of your arrival.

A passion for gardening blooms in every corner of Canada's main foothold on the Pacific Rim, which is becoming an increasingly popular destination for emigrants from Hong Kong. Even before the tide of new residents, there was a large Asian contingent in the city, and its presence is reflected in the horticultural heritage of this former outpost of the British Empire. For a more undiluted look at England's overseas legacy, you can go to Victoria, where Asia still seems very far away. In Vancouver, you can have both.

Driving about the city, you can't help but notice the extraordinary gardens that grace many of the homes and businesses. Vancouverites seem unable to leave a patch of earth unturned.

Tended landscapes here range from the strictly Oriental designs of Nitobe Garden and the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden to the futuristic, domed garden of the Bloedel Conservatory. In between you'll find everything from the primeval forests of Stanley Park to the spectacular Asian Garden (one of 10 themed plant-scapes) at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden.

The city's crown emerald jewel, VanDusen Botanical Garden, boasts a remarkable collection of 6,500 trees, shrubs and flowering plants from six continents.

A tour of the planter's art as practiced in Vancouver might begin in Stanley Park, 1,000 wild acres rambling over a peninsula at the city's northern edge.

This is the city's playground, with waterfront promenades offering spectacular views of the city skyline, the surrounding mountains and the bays, beaches, harbors and lagoons that are a large part of Vancouver's eye appeal. The paths are often filled with walkers, joggers, roller-bladers, bikers and others. Motorists can explore along a six-mile road that circles the peninsula. You'll see sunbathers, artists and lawn bowlers dressed in crisp whites and playing on neatly clipped grass fields.

Much of the botanical attention at Stanley Park focuses on its rose garden, with thousands of bushes and nearly 80 varieties represented, or on the extensive rhododendron groves. But visitors may find themselves drawn to the native population: the massive Douglas firs and cedars, whose majestic size makes them the true lords of the dark and mysterious forest covering most of Stanley Park. The epic scale of these trees inspires an appreciation for the fertile soil and encouraging climate of this patch of British Columbia.

Don't confuse it with Seattle; Vancouver's weather is far more likely to be sunny than the rainy reputation of its nearby neighbor might lead you to believe. And though the surrounding rugged mountain peaks are often capped with snow, the white stuff rarely falls in this temperate city. by the sea.


From Stanley Park, follow the coast of English Bay on your way to the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens. There you will find deep, forested pathways threading collections of Northwest natives, but instead head for the huge Asian Garden, which constitutes nearly half of the overall garden's 75 acres, to begin your exploration of Far Eastern flora. The first of many surprises is right near the entrance: a stand of Himalayan lilies, with creamy-colored, honey-scented, megaphone-size flowers bursting from 10-foot-high stems as thick as your arm. Flowers so sizable do strange things to your sense of scale; you may feel a little like Gulliver. That Brobdingnagian effect is furthered by the skyscraping canopy you're walking under--towering firs (some of these grow more than 250 feet tall and 35 feet around near the coast), cedars and hemlocks that sometimes offer a perch for passing bald eagles.

Following wide, mulched pathways past towering rhododendrons, you'll spy curiosities, such as a ghost tree from China and a coffin tree, native to Taiwan (its wood is used, sure enough, to inter the dead). Stewartia, with its peeling bark and abundant white flowers, is everywhere, and primroses burst out all over. The plantings are explored via a trail known as the Asian Way. Spurs branching off it are named after the intrepid seeds men who, a century or more ago, explored the vastness of Asia in search of its botanic wonders.

Several miles distant, another corner of the Botanical Gardens seems directly transplanted from the Far East. In a sense, it is. Nitobe Garden, the work of Japanese landscape architect Kannosuke Mori, highlights Japanese maples and flowering cherries, azaleas and irises, many of which were transplanted from Japan.

This idealized version of nature features stone bridges arching across curving waterways, whispering cascades, a deep, still-watered pond ringed by gravel pathways. There are mosses, sculptural-looking evergreens and laurel. , all under the protective canopy of towering fir and cedar.already said this Bird song is everywhere. It's hard to resist disappearing into one of the meditative pavilions or escaping to a quiet shaded spot.


Another meditative spot with an Asian flavor can be found in an even more unlikely spot: downtown, at the edge of the city's bustling Chinatown. There, rising from a former parking lot in a glorious vision of urban renewal, is the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, reputed to be the most authentic full-scale classical garden ever built outside China.

In this walled-off piece of another world, visitors pass through circular moon gates, stroll along covered walkways, contemplate eerily eroded limestone pinnacles and tread on pathways built of pebbles born in Chinese rivers. Almost everything here, in fact, was brought from China, even the sculpted-looking rocks, the hand-fired roof tiles and the craftsmen who put everything in place.

Pavilions and courtyards invite a moment of rest and afford a good spot to gaze upon the dramatically upswept eaves that make every roof line distinctive. Plants and flowers within the compound reflect human values: Bamboo symbolizes strength, pine signifies grace, peonies wealth and lilies purity. Here, too, are ginkgo trees; ginkgoes, common in North America before they succumbed to the chill of the last Ice Age, are used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes.


Forgetfulness won't be a problem for visitors to the futuristic dome of the Bloedel Floral Conservatory. It's a memorable spot indeed. The massive dome encloses a fantasy world of plants and animals from tropical forests and deserts. Scarlet macaws perch in the twisting trunks of fiddle-leaf figs; black-dappled koi coast through stone-lined pools. Swaying bamboo bridges span gurgling waterways on pathways winding past banyan trees, Hawaiian tree ferns and other exotica. Floral fireworks come courtesy of blazing patches of yellow lilies, pink begonias, red cyclamen and orange kalanchoe. Whatever the weather, this refuge offers instant escape to another world.

Outside the dome lies Canada's first civic arboretum, Queen Elizabeth Park. Its sprawling collection of native and exotic specimens is scattered over more than 100 acres in and around the remains of an old quarry gouged out of Little Mountain. The views from this spot are among the best in the city. The panorama view includes the downtown skyline, craggy Mt. Seymour, the fang-like peaks known as The Lions, the forested slopes of Grouse Mountain, the far-off summit of Golden Ears and, of course, the intensely cared-for landscape of the park itself.


The most manicured landscapes in Vancouver are not far away, at the VanDusen Botanical Garden. This is, arguably, the brightest jewel in Vancouver's green crown.

Scattered over its 50-plus acres is one of Canada's most extensive collections of ornamental plants. The botanic bounty is displayed in 46 themed gardens linked by sweeping greenswards and dotted with stone sculptures.

For an Asian odyssey, you could set out on Rhododendron Walk, lined with mature specimens representing hundreds of varieties from the Himalayas, Myanmar, China and Tibet.

Turn at a Korean-styled pavilion, pause in a circle of stones inside the shady Meditation Garden, stop by a dell filled with ferns from all over the globe and continue on to the Sino-Himalayan Garden, where you'll find poppies, unusual varieties of the magnolia and a host of floral specimens from China and the foothills of the world's highest mountain range, the Himalayas.

Then you might continue to the garden devoted to primrose and Japanese maples, or perhaps the ginkgo gardens.

And that's just the start of VanDusen's collection. Elsewhere on the grounds are a maze garden, and a special planting devoted to oaks, beech, viburnums, heathers, Mediterranean plants, roses, ashes, perennials--the list goes on and on. And everything is growing like wild, which, in this urban bastion for botany, is as it should be.


GUIDEBOOK: Greening of Vancouver

Getting there: United, Delta, Air Canada and Canadian airlines offer nonstop flights from LAX to Vancouver, British Columbia; Alaska has connecting service. Round-trip fares begin at $183 (taxes are $29.70) for tickets bought by July 30. U.S. citizens do not need a passport to visit Canada, but must take proof of citizenship; a voter registration card or birth certificate will suffice.

For more information: VanDusen Botanical Garden, (604) 878-9274.

The University of British Columbia Botanical Garden/Nitobe Garden, (604) 822-9666.

Bloedel Floral Conservatory, (604) 257-8570.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, (604) 689-7133.

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