by William Kendall @WilliamKendall1
If there can be a positive legacy of war, spring floral colours are a good one.
At the end of the Second World War, the Netherlands were liberated by Canadian forces. During the war, the Dutch Crown Princess Juliana had found refuge in Ottawa with her daughters, one of whom was born here. As thanks, the Dutch royal family sent tulip bulbs to Canada, a tradition they have kept up ever since. In the years that followed, those bulbs, and more being bought by the federal government, were planted in various spots in the city. By 1953, the idea of a formal tulip festival was proposed and initiated by the Canadian landscape photographer Malak Karsh, a local photographer who had been enjoying capturing the tulips as they bloomed each May. If his name sounds familiar, it should- Malak was the brother of the famed Ottawa portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, and the two brothers pursued their common love of photography with different subjects.
The festival has carried on ever since, evolving over time, but always centered on the tulip displays. Beds of tulip bulbs are planted in the fall in parkland both in Ottawa and Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. By late April the tulips are showing themselves, just in time for blooming in May. The festival takes place over a few days, ending on the Victoria Day weekend, and each year, weather plays a factor in the peak time of the bloom. Some years it’s early, some years it’s later. This year, as of this writing, I suspect the last weekend will be a good one for visitors.
And it brings in the visitors. Locals and tourists come to the parks and flower beds where the tulips are in their full glory. Photographers are to be found everywhere with cameras taking pictures. Some of the flower beds are arranged with patio stones leading into the middle of them, with posing for pictures specifically in mind. Weekends tend to be when it’s busiest around the tulips, so for a local like me, it’s easier to photograph during the middle of the week on a sunny afternoon.
There are numerous locations. The Rideau Canal has numerous flower beds along its length in the downtown core, filled with tulips. Where the Canal widens into Dow’s Lake, the largest number of tulips for any one location can be found- Commissioner’s Park, a spot that’s ideal for a pleasant walk, with a rich variety of bulbs and colours providing a feast for the eye.
There are other locations- Major’s Hill Park is a particularly splendid spot, with its grand views of the city skyline and multiple tulip beds. The national museums have tulip beds close by, as well as a quiet spot most people don’t know about, the Garden Of The Provinces, which lies at the western edge of the downtown core. Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau, Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor-General, and the Mackenzie King Estate in the Gatineau Hills are other ideal locations for tulips. And there are the tulips on Parliament Hill itself. They fill the flower beds out in front of Centre Block, providing a visual delight to visitors to our seat of government. Of course that doesn’t even take into account the countless tulips planted in private gardens across the city by residents.
But one of my favourite spots for the tulips is over on the Gatineau side of the river. On the grounds of the Canadian Museum of History, overlooking the river, with a great view of Parliament Hill, one will always find a bed of tulips planted and looking colourful in May. The bed is named for Malak himself, and it is a fitting place to pay tribute to the founder. He once took a photograph from this spot, a photograph of floating lumber and a boat or two managing the log drive on the river, with Parliament Hill as its backdrop. That very image was on our Canadian dollar bill for many years- with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth on the other side, an image taken from an official portrait of her done by his brother Yousuf. It’s a delightful spot to come to when the tulips are in bloom- the vivid flowers, the mighty river, and two cities and a grand landscape around you.
I’m lucky to live here. Throughout the period when the tulips are in bloom, I can go see them at my leisure. Visitors from out of town come by the legions to see them, to photograph them (becoming what I call the tulip paparazzi), and to delight in the multitude of colours. It’s a wonderful tradition that serves to be a great treat in the national capital.
And Frankly, My Dear . . . That’s all she wrote!