Spring is fast approaching. In Chinese culture, it’s synonymous with revival.
Spring expresses itself through literature, art and architecture, as well as in certain plants that can be admired at the Jardin botanique de Montréal’s Chinese Garden.
Will you recognize them?
The Chinese Garden is a little gem of design presenting different scenographies offering a variety of harmonious landscapes. Designed as a painting, it can be explored to the rhythm of the seasons.
The apricot tree (Prunus sp.), the magnolia (Magnolia sp.) and the tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa) are the undisputed representatives of revival. They dazzle us with their spectacular spring flowerings.
The tree peony, which originated in China, is considered the queen of flowers1 and is used for its medicinal properties.2 In addition to representing rebirth, it symbolizes aristocracy, honours, wealth, love and feminine beauty. The Osti's tree peony (Paeonia ostii) displays its charms at the main entrance to the garden. You can observe it at the foot of an imposing monolith and a slender Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris).
You’ll be able to admire an important collection of single-bloom Chinese tree peonies very close to the zigzag bridge, in the bed situated in front of the Friendship Hall.
You won’t find any Japanese apricot (Prunus mume) at the Chinese Garden, but a substitute: the Japanese alpine cherry (Prunus nipponica var. kurilensis). Along with the magnolia, its early flowering celebrates the arrival of spring with energy and beauty. These little trees symbolize – just like the tree peony – hope, purity, wealth and nobility, and are also used for their medicinal virtues. Here and there they enhance and brighten your visit!
A little anecdote: did you know that the flower of the Yulan magnolia (Magnolia denudata, also known under its former name Magnolia heptapeta) is the official city flower of Shanghai? “In 1988, Pierre Bourque, at that time the director of the Jardin botanique de Montréal, laid the foundations for a major project, ‘the creation of a Chinese theme garden’ in partnership with the Shanghai Botanical Garden, the city of Shanghai and Ville de Montréal.”3 The flower of the Magnolia denudata is a large white cup-shaped perfumed bloom about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. You’ll be able to observe a few specimens near the pathway that leads to the Alpine Garden behind the waterfall.
A fun way of discovering the Chinese Garden and its countless treasures is to amble along the pathways and let yourself imagine what each plant, relief or architectural element might represent or call to mind: e.g., bamboo (Phyllostachys sp.), Indian lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), pine (Pinus sp.), magnolia (Magnolia sp.), sweet osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans), dragon, phoenix, peacock, crane, stone, and so on. Feel free to ask both the gardeners and the guides questions: they’ll be happy to provide you with information and to share their knowledge.
To learn more about the traditions, symbols and codes of Chinese culture and their representations, feel free to check out these references:
- Le Jardin de Chine de Montréal. Éditions Fides.
- Exploring Traditional Chinese Festivals in China. Gai Guoliang Publishing.
- Chinese Herbs: Their Botany, Chemistry, and Pharmacodynamics. Tuttle Publishing.
A Few Gardening Tips
Peony tree: autumn planting is preferred; otherwise, early in spring, before budbreak. Plant in full sun to light shade exposure in rich, cool, well-drained soil with a supply of mature compost. Plan to prune dead wood in the spring. That’s generally enough, because the peony grows slowly. During pruning, select the outer bud, which will allow for better aeration at the heart of the plant. To protect against winter winds, simple winter protection like burlap cloth around the tree is recommended.
Magnolia: plan on springtime planting after budbreak. Full sun to light shade exposure is recommended in rich, cool and well-drained soil with slightly acidic pH. It needs very little maintenance. Prune only dead or broken branches in the spring. Protect against strong winter winds, but avoid locations that are too warm, as these could lead to early budbreak in the spring or a late frost could prevent buds from blooming. Carefully plan your garden and leave enough space for the plant's roots to grow. The root system is fragile and doesn’t take to being disturbed. This is a plant that scale insects thoroughly enjoy!
Japanese alpine cherry: plan on springtime planting, with full sun exposure in rich, cool and well-drained soil with a neutral to slightly acidic pH. Pruning of dead, damaged or diseased branches in March or in early spring before budbreak is necessary. Prunus sp is often the preferred prey of several insects and fungal diseases. Another fact to note in the Prunus nipponica var. kurilensis is its lifespan. This plant is susceptible to decline at around 25 years of age. Choose resistant species, and don’t forget that planting in the right spot lets you avoid repeated and regular maintenance!
1 Danielle Tellier, Le Jardin de Chine de Montréal. Éditions Fides, 1994.
2 John D. Keys, Chinese Herbs: Their Botany, Chemistry, and Pharmacodynamics. Tuttle Publishing, 1991.
3 Preface by André Bouchard - Le Jardin de Chine de Montréal. Éditions Fides, 1994.