Restoration and rejuvenation at Royal Botanical Gardens

The small dawn redwood planted in 1952 now towers over the Prehistoric Garden.
The small dawn redwood planted in 1952 now towers over the Prehistoric Grove.

Plants have a habit of growing. And growing and growing and growing. That’s what has been happening at Ontario’s oldest botanical garden. The tiny dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) planted on the grounds of the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1952 (the first in Canada) now towers overhead. In the rock garden, ground-covering plants and shrubs spread their gnarled branches and boughs over the boulders, obscuring what is an integral feature of a garden that has been popular with visitors for decades.

The task of showcasing the best features of this mature botanical garden has fallen to head of horticulture Carlo Balistrieri and his team. To highlight the beautiful majestic redwood, a recently planted Prehistoric Grove now surrounds it. The collection of modern dawn redwood cultivars, ginkgos and Japanese umbrella pines (Sciadopitys verticillata) includes interpretive signs that tell of the trees’ ancient lineage. In the winter, a dinosaur exhibition complements the collection, placing it in its historical context.

To reveal its now-hidden beauty, the rock garden is about to undergo a facelift. The project aims to reveal views and vistas that have been long hidden among the mature evergreens and Japanese maples. Lighting will also be installed to highlight the beauty and form of the many unique shrubs and trees that have grown here since this National Historic Landmark was established in the 1930s.

Carlo Balistrieri takes a break among the irises in the Laking Garden.
Carlo Balistrieri takes a break among the irises in the Laking Garden.

When I visited in mid-June, the popular iris and peony collections in the Laking Garden were being prepared for renovation. New pathways are being laid in a geometric pattern that will make it easier to stroll through the beds for closeup views of the 400 new iris cultivars that will be planted. Plans for this area also include the creation of a clematis collection — I can’t wait for that!

The natural wetlands that surround the cultivated gardens at the RBG are undergoing restoration that is seeing the return of hardy water lilies, among other native plants.
Visitors can walk through the wetlands of the RBG along the seven boardwalks that wind their way through the valley.

Restoration is afoot in the natural areas of the RBG, too. Under the guidance of head of natural lands, Tÿs Theÿsmeÿer, marshlands are being purged of invasive common European reed grass (Phragmites australis), and great swathes of woodlands have been cleared of troublesome garlic mustard, honeysuckle and buckthorn. The results can be seen in the revitalization of swards of cattails, colonies of white water lily and clumps of wild rice. But most spectacularly, the area is now more hospitable to bald eagles. Almost wiped out due to the use of DDT and the loss of viable marshlands, the eagles are now nesting in Cootes Paradise and in spring 2013, eaglets successfully hatched – the first in more than 50 years.

The Royal Botanical Gardens are evolving, and I can’t wait to see how the gardens will grow!



  1. Aldona Satterthwaite says

    I’m glad to learn that the iris and peony collections may soon be “ready for their close-up” again. And wonderful news about the rock garden and Cootes Paradise as well. Thanks for the update!

  2. Adrian Bishop says

    I visited the RBG a few weeks ago and it was a blooming mess! There were six foot high weeds in some borders in the main gardens and many other weeds easily visible. There was no gardener is sight – however, there were plenty of staff organising events, marketing products etc. Major parts of the gardens were roped off for renovations and one garden closed entirely – with no warning on the RBG website or reduction in the entry fee. Having been a horticultural journalist in the UK, I know the Royal Horticultural Society would never put up with such poor standards.

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