A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


The Bloedel Conservatory - A Botanical Tower of Babel
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Many of you may be aware that the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park has been hoisted onto the chopping block due to more funding cuts on the behalf of our government. The Bloedel Conservatory is a true relic and has been a part of the Vancouver cityscape for 40 years! It is the unique geodesic dome home to a collection of more than 500 plant species, a pond filled with koi fish, and about 100tropical birds of various species. It's downfall in business in recent years has been largely due to the Canada Line construction on Cambie street and closures to parking lots around the park due to renovations to the reservoir below which put a big damper on the number of tour buses that could reach the facility. But as of 2008 the Conservatory's numbers have been on the rise, causing many of us to think the City board should look elsewhere to make it's cuts.

The CONSERVE THE BLOEDEL CONSERVATORY Petition to Vancouver Parks Board was created by and written by Nadiya Chettiar.

I received the above letter today via my friend and artist, Alan Storey. I often question the effectiveness of this computer-button advocacy. We can feel that we are contributing to the health and welfare of the environment by the mere pressing of that Send button. We can stay in the comfort of our home, drink our coffee and feel that we are helping. But, who knows, maybe this time it will have positive results.

I love the Bloedel Conservatory as does my wife Rosemary and my granddaughters Rebecca and Lauren. We go there at least three times a year. It is about now (and in those bleak gray days of January) when the Conservatory’s birds with their brilliant plumage beckon to make our life seem less bleak. I love to see my granddaughters talk and smile at Charlie the cockatoo.

But it is that blue Mexican agave that transports me to the Mexico I lived (and loved) for so many years. Its colour reminds me of driving by the Tequila district near Guadalajara that has miles and miles of the startling and stately blue agaves. I can smell that hot humid earth when I am at the Conservatory staring at the agave (I am beginning to call it my agave).

The problem of the Conservatory and the decision by the Vancouver Parks Board to shut it down to save money for me has its origins in a misguided (again my personal opinion) attempt by the botanical gardens of Vancouver to be independent of each other.

1. Nitobe Memorial Garden (located at the University of British Columbia)

2. UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research (and a nearby rose garden by the Chan Centre).

3. VanDusen Botanical Garden

4. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden (sometimes called the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden)

I regularly attend these four and one more, Darts Hill Garden (run by the Surrey Municipality) which was donated to Surrey by my friend the expert and passionate gardener, Francisca Darts. My wife and two granddaughters accompany me to these visits. In particular we like to go to the nearby VanDusen where my Rebecca and Lauren like to navigate the maze, watch the Koi, smell the roses and admire the fall colour, spring with the magnolias and enjoy the paradoxically bleak but lovely garden in the winter. We go to the plant sales at both VanDusen and at UBC.

You would think that these gardens would link to each other through their web pages and try to think up of joint projects that would attract more local patrons as opposed to the tourists who seem to know of their attractions.

But there are a couple of issues. One of them is the special status of UBC. It is not Vancouver when it is convenient for UBC. It is part of Vancouver when it is convenient. They have at UBC their own independent zoning laws. I know of at least one well known musical organization in Vancouver that had a problem getting city grants when the city found out that they were using UBC venues!

Consider that both the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research and the VanDusen Botanical Garden have a large army of unpaid volunteers. These unpaid volunteers (as an example at VanDusen) cannot pull weeds (even when they see one) because this would infringe on the duties of the paid parksboard employees who maintain the garden. This has been a smoldering issue for years. It is a shock to find out that the garden is not private (it seems to be) and that it is indeed run by the Vancouver Parks Board. Its ambivalent nature (Is it private? Is it public?) is similar to the ambivalent nature of the UBC Botanical Garden (is it in Vancouver? Is it not in Vancouver?)

Another issue that prevents linkage among these gardens is that the only truly botanical garden in Vancouver is the one that is not in Vancouver but out in UBC. Consider its name, UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research. That implies that it communicates with other botanical gardens around the world. They exchange plants and seeds. They introduce new and highly desirable plants to us and to the world.

The other gardens in our city, including that Japanese on out at UBC are in reality display gardens. They are not strictly speaking, botanical gardens.

It is perhaps this difference that keeps the only real botanical garden, the one at UBC such a secret from the rest of our City. To me it is isolated. Yet its garden shop is a beauty with a massive garden book collection and its yearly plant sale is the only one that features plants for sale that you would never find anywhere else in the lower mainland. That botanical garden at UBC is a treasure waiting to be discovered by us the residents of this city.

It is my belief that the problem of the Conservatory would be resolved if all our gardens got together in a spirit of cooperation (as our politicians so often say without meaning).

One other place to begin would be to take our children to these gardens and make it part of their exisitence. When they grow up our gardens will not seem to be lofty places of academia but warm, beautiful and inviting refuges from the stresses of modern life.

UBC Botanical Garden
Nitobe Garden
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden
VanDusen Botanical Garden
Darts Hill

Addendum: In her statement above Conservatory defender and enthusiast Nadiya Chettiar calls our Conservatory a "true relic". I know what she means. Perhaps in English we have lost the original meaning of relic( a most Catholic one) which used to be the word we used for the bones and other remains of saints. They were prized and kept in beautiful showcases or vaults in cathedrals and churches. It is a particular Vancouver flaw that we don't see the treasured relics of our city. They become invisible to us and we only realize their value when they are gone.


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