In 2010, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s downtown “castle” reopened to great fanfare after six years of renovation and renewal. To most observers, the festivities that followed marked the completion of this grand project, and the unveiling of the Canadian Museum of Nature as a complete (and completely new) natural history museum. For a few of us behind the scenes, however, the renewal project won’t be officially completed until later this year, when the museum’s outdoor botany gallery—the Landscapes of Canada Gardens—is officially inaugurated.

Plans showing the gardens on the museum property.
The plan for the Landscapes of Canada gardens on the west side of the museum. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

This garden, unique in the National Capital Region, will transform the west lawn of the museum into a little slice of wild Canada, complete with wide Arctic tundra, colourful prairies and lush boreal groves. With plenty of opportunities for wild play, exploration and relaxation, the gardens are sure to become a destination for museum visitors and Ottawans alike.

My involvement with the project started back in 2011, when the museum’s botany group was asked to draw up a list of native plant species for just such a project: species that would highlight both Canada as a whole, and that represented the breadth of our research and the holdings of our collections. Over the course of the project, the many species and ideas coming out of these meetings were narrowed down to a plan to highlight three important Canadian ecosystems: the Arctic tundra, the boreal forests and the prairies.

Collage: Three plants.
The Arctic tundra zone will highlight species commonly found by the museum’s northern research teams, but that have also been selected for their ability to survive in Ottawa. These include russet sedge (Carex saxatilis; top left), crowberry (Empetrum nigrum; top right) and dwarf birch (Betula glandulosa; bottom). Images: Roger Bull, Paul Sokoloff, Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Arctic tundra zone, obviously near and dear to our hearts, will be one of the trickiest aspects of the gardens to pull off successfully. Arctic plants are well adapted to their environment, often possessing insulating hairs or growing close to the ground where the air is warmest. These traits mean that Arctic plant species generally don’t fare well when transplanted to the warm south.

To work around this, we worked with the landscape architects at CSW, who are designing the gardens, to select cultivars of Arctic plant species successfully grown down south or plants that are found in both Arctic and Subarctic Canada. While these plants will require special care, bringing a bit of the Arctic to Ottawa is well worth the nurturing involved.

Collage: Three plants.
The boreal forest zone on the southern edge of the garden will feature ample opportunities for natural play and exploration. Visitors can discover various plant species, including Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum; top left), ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris; bottom left) and white spruce (Picea glauca; right).
Images: Wouter Hagens © Wouter Hagens (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0), Andrey Korzun © Andrey Korzun (licensed: CC BY-SA 3.0), Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The boreal forest region, which bookends the southern edge of the garden, will highlight the great evergreens—the larches, spruces and pines—that take pride of place in many Canadian identities. Underneath this softwood canopy, a stump path winding between trunks and ostrich ferns will allow garden visitors to play and explore.

Collage: Three plants.
The prairie grassland zone in the centre of the garden will provide a peaceful refuge for visitors and pollinators alike, and includes big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii; left), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata; top right) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta; bottom right).
Images: Matt Lavin © Matt Lavin (licensed: CC BY-SA 2.0); Paul Sokoloff, Emma Lehmberg © Canadian Museum of Nature

In the centre of it all, the prairie grassland zone, designed with input from Manitoba’s Living Prairie Museum, will be a colourful and contemplative space, featuring myriad tiers of grasses and flowers set against the backdrop of the castle. Featuring a mix of species from both tall-grass and shortgrass prairie ecosystems, these delightful grasses and important wildflowers will lend colour to the corner of O’Connor and McLeod during spring, summer and autumn.

Work will begin on the Landscapes of Canada gardens this summer, and while it will take many months for it to reach its full potential (as with any garden), the wait will be well worth it. We look forward to sharing this slice of Canadian botany with neighbours and visitors alike.