The Landscapes of Canada gardens at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa

Many of us already know the dioramas at Canada’s Museum of Nature in Ottawa: the grizzlies, the caribou, the pronghorns and even the dinosaurs.  As a child, I would gaze at these immobilized animals behind glass and imagine living among them, either in the distant past or in the wilds of today.

diorama_6
Pronghorns diorama, Canadian Museum of Nature, 2007; photo Denis Larouche

But I was also always mesmerized by the scenes that surrounded these beasts: the painted flora, the cliffs, the expansive plains….all landscapes that seemed to have disappeared along with the animals that populated them.  Not only the scenes but the dried plants and paintings of plants that dressed the landscapes…

diorama_2
Artist Denis Larouche working on the vegetative display in the Pronghorns diorama at the Canadian Museum of Nature, 2007; photo Jenni Walker

As I grew up, I longed to see these distant landscapes as they lived and breathed, rather than preserved …. and this is probably why I became a gardener.  And if I couldn’t always go to these far away landscapes, I could try to grow the plants that inhabited them.

*                        *                        *                        *                         *                       *

The western edge of the Canadian Museum of Nature in downtown Ottawa has been park-like for as long as I can remember.  And by park-like, I mean predominantly lawn and shade trees….a perfect complement to the early 20th century “Scottish Baronial” structure, designed to reflect the centre block of the Parliament Buildings.  To understand the history of the lawn, read this.  To be entertained by the concept of the lawn, read Michael Pollan’s wonderful book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, particularly Chapter 3, where he talks about our cultural imperative of mowing (courtesy the 1830 invention of the lawnmower).

ottawa02

aerial-view-before-2004
Aerial view of the Canadian Museum of Nature, pre-2004; image courtesy of Canadian Museum of Nature website (www.nature.ca).  The west side park is on the extreme right.

This western side of the Museum was also home most recently to a family group of woolly mammoths.  It was a striking sight to pedestrians, dog-walkers and lunch-time loiterers and a portend of what visitors would find inside the historic building:  giant animals from our past.

DSCF4901

In late 2011 and early 2012, plans began to take shape for the new appearance of this piece of green space.  It would represent the last stage of renovations to the building and its surroundings that began in 2004.  According to the Museum’s Advisory to the neighbourhood:

“This plan is one that will ultimately result in restoring more than half of the existing west side property into parkland for the enjoyment and benefit of the community.”

Happily, the result of this design is not simply a “parkland” but a carefully designed microcosm of Canada’s main four eco-zones, each with their own distinctive plant species: namely, the boreal forest, prairie, tundra (Arctic) and steppe grassland (this last area was included primarily to embrace our old friends, the woolly mammoths).

Landscapes schematic

So in June 2015, the Museum made public their concept for fully Canadian-izing this public space and issued a press release that included this announcement:

“A living outdoor botanical exhibit will soon enliven the grounds of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Starting the third week of June, the museum will begin landscaping the west side of its property to develop the Landscapes of Canada Gardens.”

A full year later in June 2016 the new landscape of Canada will be unveiled to the public.  There will be the usual benches, pathways, signage and light standards, but there will also be some things that are very unusual….

Starting with the iceberg.

lishman-icebert-nature-museum-ottawa-canada-thumb-500x375-406965
William Lishman with iceberg sculpture at Canadian Museum of Nature, 2015.  Photo: Alan Neal, CBC

Glistening stainless steel.  Monumental.  Interactive.  Stunning.  And designed by Father Goose, William Lishman.  Of course it represents Canada’s North in a very modern way, but also hearkens back to the paintings of Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris who travelled to the Arctic in the 1930s aboard the government supply ship “Beothic.”

The vegetation around the sculptural highlight of this garden mimics the tundra, with plants that are indigenous to the Arctic.  They have also been chosen according to what will potentially thrive in Ottawa’s sweltering summers and unpredictable winters.  This was largely Paul Sokoloff’s job: he is the Museum’s Senior Research Assistant with the Botany Department and he wrote about the gardens here.  In preparation for the installation, Paul worked with the team at CSW Landscape Architects, namely Martha Lush, and came up with a list of plants that would suit this planting.  And here they are:

TUNDRA PLANT LIST

Shrubs

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Bearberry)

Betula nana (Dwarf birch)

Rhododendron groenlandicum (Labrador tea)

Salix arctica (Arctic willow)

Vaccinum caespitosum (Dwarf blueberry)

Perennials/Grasses

Allium schoenoprasum (Chive)

Anemone patens subsp. multifida (Pasque flower/crocus)

Calliergon giganteum (Arctic moss)

Carex saxatilis (Rock sedge)

Empetrum nigrum (Black crowberry)

Puccinellias (Alkali grass)

Saxifraga cespitosa (Tufted saxifrage)

Saxifraga oppositifolia (Purple saxifrage)

Silene acaulis (Moss campion)

 

The Arctic planting will essentially be low-growing, because that’s the way things grow up there, and include novel plants (to you and I, anyway) like Betula nana ….

Gillespie, Saarela, Consaul & Bull 8722
Betula glandulosa; July 2009, NWT, taken by Jeff Saarela, Canadian Museum of Nature

This is Betula glandulosa, which the experts will tell you differs from B. nana in that it exhibits glandular warts on the shoots and longer leaf petioles — alrighty then.  Betula nana, which will be planted in this garden, is a monoecious shrub (that is, having both male and female parts – making reproduction a snap in its challenging native habitat) growing upwards to 1 or 1.2 metres high.  Its growing habit is low and spreading, with leaves that are shiny and diminutive and it produces catkins that stand upright, awaiting the wind to help with pollination.

Carex_saxatilis_RB2412_Roger_D_Bull_2012(corrected)
Carex saxatilis; Roger Bull, 2012, Canadian Museum of Nature

Russet sedge, botanically called Carex saxatilis, grows up to 80-90 centimeters high in a dense, well-behaved tuft.  This sedge grows in northern regions around the earth, preferring wetlands but also grows  on ridges or ledges, shores of rivers or lakes and wetland margins.

This brings me to moisture.  The water loving plants in the Arctic garden at the Museum are being given a helping hand through the installation of a drip irrigation system, and the area is being mulched with granite rubble.

2B (crop)
Artist’s rendering of the Arctic eco-zone in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens; courtesy CSW Landscape Architects, via Canadian Museum of Nature

This new “park land” replaces turf grasses with native grasses.  Grasses like these:

Calamagrostis stricta
The rusty brown narrow inflorescence are rendered conspicuous by the often large numbers of flowering stalks within a single stand.  Photo by Matt Lavin — originally posted to Flickr as Calamagrostis stricta

And these:

424px-DeschampsiaCespitosa1
Deschampsia caespitosa; photo by: Christian Fischer

The prairie eco-zone in this garden will showcase plants that are familiar to many of us: Echinacea, Achillea, Aster, Rudbeckia and Liatris, and they will mingle with prairie grasses.  However, these are not the showy cultivars you’ll see at the nursery, but rather the native species that you may see at Fletcher Wildlife Garden at the Central Experimental Farm.

Indeed, the folks at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden have provided many of the plants that have already been put in place or seeded in the sunny prairie garden, which will over time look quite like this:

121134074.QIcxAi4k
Butterfly meadow, June 2009, Fletcher Wildlife Garden, Ottawa: photo by Christine Hanrahan — showing fireweed, brown-eyed Susan, yarrow & feverfew, etc.

A circular area will be mown in the centre of the prairie garden to allow a space for contemplation and for educational opportunities where students can learn about native Canadian wildflowers and meadow ecology.

PRAIRIE AND BOREAL PLANT LIST

Large deciduous trees

Acer saccharum (Sugar maple)

Quercus rubra (Red oak)

Populus tremuloides (Trembling aspen)

 

Small deciduous trees

Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoon berry)

 

Coniferous trees

Abies balsamea (Balsam fir)

Larix laricina (Black larch)

Picea glauca (White spruce)

Pinus banksiana (Jack pine)

Tsuga canadensis (Hemlock)

 

Shrubs

Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Bearberry)

Empetrum nigrum (Crowberry)

Juniperus communis (Common juniper)

Juniperus horizontalis (Creeping juniper)

Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich fern)

Potentilla tridentata (Cinquefoil)

Rosa acicularis (Prickly wild rose)

Rhododendron groenlandicum (Labrador tea)

Vaccinium caespitosum (Dwarf blueberry)

Vaccinium vitas-idea (Bog cranberry)

 

Perennials

Achillea millefolium (Common yarrow)

Allium stellatum (Pink flowering onion)

Anemone patens subsp. multifida (Pasque flower/Prairie crocus)

Anemone quinquefolia (Wood anemone)

Armeria splendens (Common thrift)

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed)

Aster alpinus (Alpine aster)

Aster novae-angliae (New England aster)

Cornus canadensis (Bunchberry)

Echinacea angustifolia (Purple coneflower)

Eupatorium maculatum (Joe Pye weed)

Liatris ligulistylis (Meadow blazing star)

Papaver nudicaule (Iceland poppy)

Ranunculus acris (Tall buttercup)

Rudbeckia hirta (Black eyed Susan)

Trillium grandiflorum (Large flowered trillium)

 

Grasses

Calamagrostis stricta (Slim stem small reed grass)

Deschampsia caespitosa (Tufted hair grass)

Much of the seed mix in the prairie garden has come from the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  This city-run nature preserve comprises 12 hectares (30 acres) in the middle of the city of Winnipeg and protects 160 species of prairie plants and wildlife.  The Living Prairie Museum is a virtually untouched tall grass prairie, an eco-system that once covered one million square kilometres from Manitoba to Texas.  Seeds that are native to the tall grass prairie were sent to the folks here in Ottawa and planted in the prairie garden in the spring of 2015.  I’m sure the spring and summer of 2016 will see a glorious display!

PRAIRIE SEED MIX

Perennials

Agastache foeniculum (Giant hyssop)

Allium stellatum (Pink flowering onion)

Anemone patens subsp. multifida (Pasque flower/Prairie crocus)

Aquilegia canadensis (Wild red columbine)

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed)

Aster novae-angliae (New England aster)

Echinacea angustifolia (Purple coneflower)

Epilobium angustifolium (Fireweed)

Eupatorium maculatum (Joe Pye weed)

Dalea purpurea (Purple prairie clover)

Liatris ligulistylis (Meadow blazing star)

Ratibida columnifera (Yellow coneflower)

Rudbeckia hirta (Black eyed Susan)

 

Grasses

Agrostis scabra (Hair grass)

Bouteloua gracilis (Blue grama grass)

Koeleria cristata (Junegrass)

Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem)

 

Tall grass mix

Andropogon gerardi (Big bluestem)

Bouteloua curtipendula (Side oats grama)

Elymus canadensis (Canada wild rye)

Panicum virgatum (Switch grass)

Sorghastum nutans (Indian grass)

Boreal 10 (resize)
Artist’s rendering of the Boreal eco-zone in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens; courtesy CSW Landscape Architects, via Canadian Museum of Nature

The boreal forest will be a shady retreat for visitors to the Landscapes of Canada gardens.  Healthy existing trees have been supplemented with sympathetic native species like Sugar maple, red oak and trembling aspen, alongside some iconic evergreen species like Jack pine, hemlock, white spruce, black larch and balsam fir.

Picea_glauca_DSC_2_0401_PSokoloff_2014
Picea glauca (white spruce) 2014; Paul Sokoloff, Canadian Museum of Nature

And finally, the mammoths have been moved but they have not been forgotten…

canadian-museum-of-nature

No longer next to the rushing traffic on O’Connor Street, they have been shifted to their new north-facing home next to McLeod Street.  And rather than a bed of gravel, they will graze in a planting of shrubs, grasses and perennials that would have been around when they traveled across the Bering Strait into our northern landscape.

MAMMOTH STEPPE PLANTING

Shrubs and Grasses

Juniperus communis

Potentilla tridentata

Rosa acicularis

Calamagrostis stricta

Deschampsia caespitosa

 

Perennials

Anemone patens

Achillea millefolium

Armeria splendens

Aster alpinus

Papaver nudicaule

Ranunculus acris

The final plantings of this series of gardens will be in the Arctic Garden this spring.  By Saturday June 18th, the gardens will be open to the public and are invited to come and enjoy this spectacular botanical display.  Go to http://www.nature.ca for updates on this launch.

I really look forward to being one of those visitors who sit, saunter, eat, read, listen to the birds and watch the butterflies in this new space.  The garden will be such a joy in the middle of town, just one mile south of the Parliament Buildings.

Prairie 6 (resize)
Artist’s rendering of the Prairie garden, Landscapes of Canada Gardens, Canada Museum of Nature; courtesy CSW Landscape Architects and Canada Museum of Nature
1884-01 VMMB PLANTING COMBINED-L3a (crop)
Planting plan for Landscapes of Canada Gardens, Canadian Museum of Nature; by CSW Landscape Architects, Ottawa.  Courtesy Canadian Museum of Nature

3 thoughts on “The Landscapes of Canada gardens at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa”

  1. Thanks for this essay: how fascinating. I would never have known any of this. And what an abundance of intriguing links to follow! I’m looking forward to the launch.

  2. Hi,
    I just chanced upon your blog and had the surprise to see myself in it. My name is Denis Larouche and I am the artist shown working on the Pronghorn diorama at the Canadian Museum of Nature. What a surprise (but a nice one).
    What a wonderful blog this is. And as my wife and I are in the process of redesigning our garden, the timing could not be better. Thank you.
    Incidently, should you like to see more images of the fabrication of this diorama, you will find several in the museum section of my website at http://www.denislarouche.com
    Keep up the good work.
    Denis Larouche A.O.C.A.
    Gatineau, QC

    1. Denis, I’m so happy that you found my blog and your own face on it as well! What an honour. Thank you for commenting and for doing such an incredible job on these landscapes. I know that generations of kids and adults alike have really enjoyed being transported to vast and wild lands while gazing at your work. Thank you from one of them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s