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A gem of a garden

The Horticultural Hall

MANILA, Philippines — It’s known simply as The Halifax Public Gardens, but this 16-acre oasis – one of the last surviving Victorian gardens in Canada – is home to 140 different species of trees and flowers with an impressive historical background in serene surroundings.

Opened in 1867 – the year of the Canadian Confederation – in the center of the city, the gardens have retained most of its original settings, thanks to the meticulous restoration and expert preservation of resident horticulturists and gardeners. This lovely square was designated a National Historic Site in 1984.

This patch of more-than-just-green is annually open from May to November from eight in the morning until the romantic and poetic time of “one half hour before dusk.”

This fine example of a Victorian garden is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence and a magnificent set of ornamental gates, which bear the words “E Mari Merces,” which translates to wealth from the sea, the coat of arms of the harbor city in the maritime province of Nova Scotia of Atlantic Canada.

We headed straight to the Bandstand, the literal and figurative center, which has been a venue for concerts and social events for well over a century, dedicated to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. There are free Sunday band concerts held from mid-June to mid-September from 2 to 4 p.m.

Surrounding this structure are numerous Geometric Beds – I lost count at 32 – a common element of Victorian-type gardens, which bloom in more colors than the rainbow.

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Not to be confused with the Geometric Beds are the Carpet Beds, another Victorian tradition, which consists of densely arranged dwarf plants of varying contrasting hues, all forming a specific design. These shrubs are not allowed to flower and are religiously trimmed to keep the desired look.

Likewise not to be missed are the vegetable and fruits beds, whose products can compete in country fairs and end up as Blue Ribbon winners.

There is also a display of tropical plants such as agaves, euphorbia milii and some variants of cacti – semi arid and desert plants not local to Canada. Raised in greenhouses to survive the winters, it is a treat to those who may not otherwise see these anywhere else within the country.

Another eye candy which certainly got our attention was a huge sea of large dahlias of many different varieties, in never-seen-before sizes, oddly unique shapes, every imaginable color, each labelled for identification and better appreciation.

Some American Chestnut trees were pointed out, which interestingly claimed to be an endangered species with only close to a hundred remaining in the province. Some successful propagation efforts are ongoing.

We then crossed some pedestrian lanes – there were no drive throughs here – to end up at the Horticultural Hall, originally a meeting place and remains, as of today, the oldest part of the Halifax Public Gardens.

Having signed the guestbook, as millions before us have done, we were ushered into its Uncommon Grounds Cafe, where we enjoyed a wonderful cup of coffee by its terrace, while we had an animated chat with the tour guide amongst select books, postcards and clothing, as souvenirs.

Due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Juan in 2003, huge portions of the gardens had to be reconstructed. During the massive rebuilding effort, the Horticultural Hall Plaza, the newest addition to the park, was erected through the generosity of local businesses and thousands of citizens. At its center is a fountain which basin is supported by figures of five swans.

Our next stop was the classical Victoria Jubilee Fountain with the cornerstone nymph named Egeria, supported by a Corinthian column protruding from a heavy basin and surrounded by four serpents.

Not to be outdone is the Boer War Memorial Fountain, topped by a figure of a local rifleman supported by crane-and-daffodil decorated columns, erected to commemorate the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the South African War from 1899 to 1902.

Beside lies a showcase of Weeping European Beech and Camperdown Elm tree, looking extra melancholic after learning it was donated by the proud family of a Canadian soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice during the turmoil of hostilities.

All over are benches donated for various noble causes and heart-rending reasons as memorials and tributes. I urge you to contemplate on the stories behind every individual marker – each sharing gets more heart-wrenching than the previous one.

As we roamed around, we noticed several larger than life statues, generously donated by Estate Chief Justice Sir William Young (1799-1887). Three Roman goddesses originated from his garden – Ceres for fertility and agriculture, Flora for the spring season and flowers, Diana for woodland and wild animals.

Complementing this collection are carved likeness of Sir Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s wartime prime minister; Samuel Cunard, founder of the leading operator of pioneering passenger ships in the North Atlantic; and Scottish poet Robert Burns of Auld Lang Syne fame.

We soon stumbled upon the man-made Griffin’s Pond, named after a young Irishman who was hanged on its banks and whose murder conviction was regrettably later questioned.

The Titanic is commemorated in this area. Three Halifax-based ships sailed off to rescue the living and recover the dead of this vessel which sank on its maiden voyage.

The “unsinkable” may be reminisced here through its model – drawing from another Victorian tradition of having ship models in your own garden pool.

We then strolled through the picturesque concrete Upper Bridge, a slightly arched deck decorated with balusters and urns, an ideal site for wedding and commencement photographs. It bears a plaque which recognizes the bravery of Inspector Francis Fitzgerald, a Haligonian Boer War Veteran and the first commander of the Royal North West Mounted Police.

To cap off our visit to the gardens, we had the opportunity to gaze at fowl and avian life within the Bird Enclosure, which was once the haven of swans, dating back to the time when King George V donated the first pair in 1926. Today, geese and migratory birds may be spotted taking a break in the vicinity.

As I watched the birds slowly float above the water in complete silence, this tranquility amidst numerous people perfectly encapsulates the soul of the Halifax Public Gardens.

 

 

 

 

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