A welcome, warm, late August morning finds Louis and I, and the two Golden Retrievers in Burlington, Ontario. We’re celebrating 50 Ontario National Historic Site visits tucked under our belts—only 216 to go. And we’re champing at the bit to discover the next one: The Royal Botanical Gardens.

This visit will engage more than the usual senses of sight and sound. At RBG, smell, touch and even taste are integral to the experience.

A bit of history is in order before we lace up our walking shoes.

A Garden out of an Eyesore
Turn your clocks back to 1930. It’s the Great Depression and times are tough, with thousands of Canadians out of work. One Thomas McQuesten, a Hamilton millionaire athlete, politician and lawyer engages his considerable grey matter to put hundreds of Canadians to work.

McQuesten wants to turn an unsightly gravel pit in west Hamilton into a showplace, a massive garden. He’ll employ hundreds of area men to do the “grunt work” for the task—-hauling limestone from area quarries to build the foundations for the garden. And so the seeds of the Royal Botanical Gardens are sown.

RBG’s Famous Rock Garden
Over a six-acre expanse, McQuesten’s garden grew, evolving into a stunning network of staircases, waterfalls, ponds and bridges. Hundreds of species of flowers, shrubs and other greenery completed McQuesten’s dream garden.
Eighty years after the Rock Garden’s beginnings, it’s still called “The Heart” of the Royal Botanical Gardens. Each year, it attracts thousands of visitors. In the spring, the Rock Garden’s Flowering Cherry orchards are a sensory wonderland.

McQuesten’s Rock Garden was only the beginning. Over the decades, the Royal Botanical Gardens has continued to evolve, and now covers a sprawling 2422 acres (960 hectares). The green space includes several floral parks, an arboretum, two nature sanctuaries, and marsh areas. Over 20 km of hiking trails invite more active nature lovers. RBG are now Canada’s largest botanical gardens.

With an elderly dog in tow and the late summer sun promising some real heat in the day, we’ve chosen to visit only a small corner of the RBG experience. It’s the lovely Hendrie Park. Ponds and benches(photo 3), perennial displays, shady bowers and theme gardens will invite us to stay a welcome couple of hours.
With many of the collections gone to bed for the year, including the Centennial Rose Garden and the lily collection, there’s still lots to see, and touch and smell.(photo 4) While Louis sits in the shade with the dogs, I’m headed to the Scented and Medicinal Gardens.

The Scented Garden:
The delicious fragrance of Hendrie Park’s Scented Garden area comes well before the sight. It’s a heavenly mixture of tall Flowering Tobacco, scented Petunias (whites carry more fragrance than coloured), lilies and phlox. I’ll defy anyone to pass through this area of the park without stopping to breathe in deeply.

The Medicinal Garden:
I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in Hendrie Park’s Medicinal Garden.(photo 2) I’ve long been interested in traditional herbal medicine and have used various remedies for myself, my children and my pets.

What a fascinating place this area of Hendrie Park is. Large easy-read signs point the way to healing and healthful plants for a variety of mankind’s ailments– from digestion to fertility to heart ailments.
Got a cold? Try horehound, (photo 1) geranium or eucalyptus. Fuzzy thinking? Or your memory is going? Ginkgo might be the answer. Stress got you down? Reach for Belladonna, Queen of the Meadows or St. John’s Wort.

I’ve read about these plants in various natural remedy textbooks, but a meander through RBC’s Medicinal Garden allows me to see the plants before they become powders, capsules and pills.

It’s time to turn back to relieve Louis from dog-sitting. He’s heading to Hendrie Park’s Vegetable Garden. It’s a cornucopia of healthy veggies: thigh-high Swiss Chard; tomatoes—no bugs in these red jewels–and fragrant Basil.
The sudden burst of a watering hose sends him scattering before he can admire more.

A shady walk under a trellice of crabapple branches trained to grow horizontally ends our sensuous morning. We barely got started. Hours, perhaps days are needed to discover all of RBG’s wonders.

The Royal Botanical Gardens
680 Plains Road West,
Burlington, ON
Summer hours: From 10 am to 8 pm daily

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