A day at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens and Butterfly ConservatoryBy Jan Recchio (grampapa)
August 2, 2009
If you are going to be visiting Niagara Falls, either on the Canadian or American side , and you are not excited by the prospect of the 'touristy' attractions like wax museums and gambling casinos, I have a wonderful alternative to suggest. Since I know my readers are gardeners it has an especially strong appeal. The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens is only ten minutes north of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls near the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. With the Butterfly Conservatory right on the grounds, it is well worth the short side-trip. If you have any extra time, just a bit further down the Niagara Parkway is the Niagara Parks Floral Clock, 40 feet wide and planted with up to 16,000 carpet bedding plants.
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As you enter the Botanical Gardens there is a large sign with the various theme garden locations (also available on the brochure handed out when you enter which can be printed out here). Since you will easily spend the entire day and still not see everything, you will probably be in need of refreshment. At the center of the Gardens is the Butterfly Café as well as several itinerant ice cream carts. There is a charming horse and carriage ride for those who are weary of walking...it is a very large park. Entrance to the Gardens is free, however there is a charge to see the butterflies.
On arrival, if you wish, you will purchase your tickets for the butterfly exhibit. We got in line immediately and the wait was not long on a weekday. There is a short film in the beginning explaining the life cycle of butterflies and some other interesting information. Then you are let into the conservatory in small groups. It is a bit of tropical rain forest absolutely teeming with butterflies. All kinds of butterflies! There is a nice wide stone pathway with a gentle pitch. Proceed very slowly and look everywhere, for in every nook, cranny and on every leaf there is a butterfly; perched with wings open, wings closed, flittering about, enjoying the fruit that is put out for them, landing on visitors to their absolute delight. There is no one to rush you and you may take all the photographs you want. To reinforce the opening movie, there is a case of larvae, each hanging in its own chrysalis, waiting to emerge as the newest butterfly of the hour. At several points the path bridges over a water feature. In the shallow part, a large turtle dwells (a box turtle if I'm not mistaken). There is a waterfall as you come around to a deeper pool. In a small glass 'isolation booth' all their own, there are several poison dart frogs (excuse the poor photo...the glass was somewhat foggy).
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Because the Gardens are so large, my friend (another DG member) and I decided to visit our favorite gardens first. My top choices were the Rose Garden, the Herbarium and the Dwarf Conifer Collection. These are all strong interests of mine and I have gardens corresponding to each in my back yard. The companion's main interest was photographic opportunities, so she was easy to please as far as location. We had a little lunch at the Butterfly Café (the menu is mostly the standard hotdog/hamburger type, but they have some nice salads as well) and we were off.
Our first stop was the Rose Garden & Seasonal Displays. The seasonal displays are large beds of annuals in the center of the garden that are worth visiting in themselves and I assume change as the season wears on. I was particulary interested in the varieties of roses they grow because I live in the area (a short distance south of Niagara Falls, NY) and any plant that grows for them should 'theoretically' grow for me. I say 'theoretically' because they have an entire staff of students to take care of winterizing the roses, while I have only myself. What a wonderful site to be able to have a whole grouping of one cultivar of rose planting together! Near the Rose Garden exit is the Hornbeam Allée, two long, impressive rows of trees. Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the species of Hornbeam (Carpinus). Actually, I didn't write down anything that day. I was there to enjoy, not to study.
The Herbarium is very near the Rose Garden, walled in by shrub hedges. It is planted in the formal English-style and the herb garden of my dreams! So many plants that you forget are herbs because they are so very lovely; salvia, calendula, dianthus, lavender and even rose. Of course, there were many, many of our favorite kitchen herbs; mints, thymes, oreganos, parsley, sage, rosemary. I'll stop here while I have you humming Simon and Garfunkel . The scents, textures and colors could have held me there interminably, but we had to move on because there was so much to see.
Beyond the pergola at the end of the Rose Garden we came to the Dwarf Conifer Garden. Dwarf conifers fascinate me. Many of them come from "witches' brooms"; dense, tangled clumps of branches found growing on normal size trees which are then propagated. According to the American Conifer Society, 'dwarf 'conifers grow between 1 and 6 inches a year and their appoximate size at 10 years is between 1 and 6 feet . Smaller than that are called 'miniatures.' My collection is only around 15 plants, but I really hope to increase it. We then took a detour to the Shrub and Daylily Border for a nice break in the shade. Thanks to another dear DG friend I have recently developed an addiction to daylilies as well. There were so many in the border along with climbing roses and lots of other shrubs. My companion spent quite a bit of time photographing daylilies, while I was drawn back to the roses.
Following along the logical path we ran into the Vegetable Garden. Oh, wow, so many varieties! Everything you could think of to grow in the fairly short zone 6 summers here. Many colors of sweet peppers, lots of varieties of tomatoes and hot peppers, corn, eggplant, cucumbers, beans, and the list goes on. Now why do you suppose all of my veggies have yellow leaves and holes in the fruit and these were just beautiful?? It was a pleasure to stroll through and view everything, even the ones I would never, ever eat. There was a very interesting structure (pictured at right) in the garden here, but there was no sign on it and we could not locate anyone to explain its purpose.
We wandered a bit after that and took a few more pictures. At left is one of the gorgeous hanging baskets that carried the theme of the annuals that were all through the pathways...brilliant orange and deep purple. But it had been a long day...beautiful weather, good company, great destination, but very long. Just one last quick stop for an ice cream to go.
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 Dwarf Conifer Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden
 Reference to the song 'Scarborough Fair' by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, album by the same name released in 1966 by Colombia Records