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Nearer to Nature in British Columbia

Touring Vancouver's lush botanic gardens, where East meets West

July 21, 1996|STEVE SILK | HARTFORD COURANT

VANCOUVER, Canada — East meets West in the rich soil of British Columbia. Here in Vancouver, the gardening traditions of Asia and England collide with a splashy, colorful exuberance. The hybrid results are displayed in the city's abundant collection of botanical gardens and conservatories.

You needn't be a gardener to appreciate this floriferous city. Vancouver has been called one of the most livable cities in North America, and its charming neighborhoods--the swank West End, booming Chinatown, old-fashioned Gastown and the shopping and people-watching mecca at Granville Island Public Market--are a joy in themselves. Add to that a laid-back attitude, drop-dead scenic beauty and temperate climate, and you've got a place that's easy to love. If you are a gardener, or just interested in things botanic, you'll be ready to put down roots within moments of your arrival.

A passion for gardening blooms in every corner of Canada's main foothold on the Pacific Rim, which is becoming an increasingly popular destination for emigrants from Hong Kong. Even before the tide of new residents, there was a large Asian contingent in the city, and its presence is reflected in the horticultural heritage of this former outpost of the British Empire. For a more undiluted look at England's overseas legacy, you can go to Victoria, where Asia still seems very far away. In Vancouver, you can have both.

Driving about the city, you can't help but notice the extraordinary gardens that grace many of the homes and businesses. Vancouverites seem unable to leave a patch of earth unturned.

Tended landscapes here range from the strictly Oriental designs of Nitobe Garden and the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden to the futuristic, domed garden of the Bloedel Conservatory. In between you'll find everything from the primeval forests of Stanley Park to the spectacular Asian Garden (one of 10 themed plant-scapes) at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden.

The city's crown emerald jewel, VanDusen Botanical Garden, boasts a remarkable collection of 6,500 trees, shrubs and flowering plants from six continents.

A tour of the planter's art as practiced in Vancouver might begin in Stanley Park, 1,000 wild acres rambling over a peninsula at the city's northern edge.

This is the city's playground, with waterfront promenades offering spectacular views of the city skyline, the surrounding mountains and the bays, beaches, harbors and lagoons that are a large part of Vancouver's eye appeal. The paths are often filled with walkers, joggers, roller-bladers, bikers and others. Motorists can explore along a six-mile road that circles the peninsula. You'll see sunbathers, artists and lawn bowlers dressed in crisp whites and playing on neatly clipped grass fields.

Much of the botanical attention at Stanley Park focuses on its rose garden, with thousands of bushes and nearly 80 varieties represented, or on the extensive rhododendron groves. But visitors may find themselves drawn to the native population: the massive Douglas firs and cedars, whose majestic size makes them the true lords of the dark and mysterious forest covering most of Stanley Park. The epic scale of these trees inspires an appreciation for the fertile soil and encouraging climate of this patch of British Columbia.

Don't confuse it with Seattle; Vancouver's weather is far more likely to be sunny than the rainy reputation of its nearby neighbor might lead you to believe. And though the surrounding rugged mountain peaks are often capped with snow, the white stuff rarely falls in this temperate city. by the sea.

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From Stanley Park, follow the coast of English Bay on your way to the University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens. There you will find deep, forested pathways threading collections of Northwest natives, but instead head for the huge Asian Garden, which constitutes nearly half of the overall garden's 75 acres, to begin your exploration of Far Eastern flora. The first of many surprises is right near the entrance: a stand of Himalayan lilies, with creamy-colored, honey-scented, megaphone-size flowers bursting from 10-foot-high stems as thick as your arm. Flowers so sizable do strange things to your sense of scale; you may feel a little like Gulliver. That Brobdingnagian effect is furthered by the skyscraping canopy you're walking under--towering firs (some of these grow more than 250 feet tall and 35 feet around near the coast), cedars and hemlocks that sometimes offer a perch for passing bald eagles.

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