Description of Historic Place
The Royal Botanical Gardens National Historic Site of Canada is an extensive botanical garden that was developed over the course of the 20th century. Set at the western edge of the city of Hamilton, it occupies almost 1100 hectares on several separate discrete parcels of land clustered around Burlington Bay at the western end of Lake Ontario. The site includes a series of themed gardens, an arboretum, a conservation area and an interpretive centre. The formal recognition consists of the several separate parcels of land comprising the Botanical Gardens, and including the buildings, structures and gardens directly associated with them.
The Royal Botanical Gardens was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1993 because:
- it is one of Canada’s most important botanical gardens, distinguished by a first-class horticultural collection;
- over the 60 year period of its development as a series of discrete gardens and a wildlife conservation area within an urban context, it has benefited from the contributions of some of the nation’s most talented landscape architects, botanists and plant curators; and,
- it has a world-renowned lilac collection which has gained it the honour of being named the international registration authority for cultivar names of lilacs.
The Royal Botanical Gardens was part of a late 1920s scheme to beautify Hamilton by building a landscaped parkway into the city and creating a campus for McMaster University. The plan to include a botanical garden was developed by the Hamilton Board of Parks Management under its chairman, Thomas Baker McQuesten. The Board’s decision in 1932 to combine separate parcels of land to create the Gardens was prompted by an advisory committee including landscape architects Carl Borgstrom and Howard Dunington-Grubb. The Gardens’ unusual design, consisting of a series of discrete gardens and conservation areas set within a sprawling network of parkway, marked a radical departure from the 19th-century conception of a botanical garden.
The landscape design of the Gardens was influenced by Carl Borgstrom, who believed in a natural approach to landscape design and in creating a botanical garden that would appeal to the general public. Borgstrom designed a rock garden, in an abandoned gravel pit adjacent to the parkway, transforming the pit into an intricate landscape of picturesque winding paths, hidden flights of steps, ledges, crevices and pools. A list of recommendations prepared by Borgstrom for the Gardens in 1942 was largely implemented over the next twenty years. It included important components such as formal gardens, rose and climbing gardens, an arboretum, and a lilac garden.
Plant curator K. Matthew Broman designed the Laking Garden in 1947. It functions as a trial garden for hardy herbaceous plant collections and includes a major iris collection.
Landscape architect J. Austin Floyd designed the formal garden in Hendrie Park in 1962. Influenced by the International Style, Floyd created a geometric framework for avenues and flower beds, organized along a principal axis that is reminiscent of Renaissance garden design.
The Teaching Garden, first developed in 1947-1948 as an educational project for children, includes a house, a greenhouse and six hectares of gardens containing plants selected for their aesthetic appeal, sturdiness and educational value.
The Arboretum, developed in the 1950s and 1960s, was designed to facilitate automobile viewing, with trees planted on avenues radiating from a central parking circle. The Katie Osborne Lilac Garden, begun in 1960-1961, is now the largest living collection of lilacs in the world.
The Conservation Area covers 800 hectares of marsh, shallow lake, woodland, meadow, escarpment face, and agricultural land maintained in a naturalized state. It includes the Cootes Paradise Sanctuary, a carefully monitored wetland adjacent to Burlington Bay, and the Rock Chapel Sanctuary.
An interpretive centre, designed in 1958, provides space for a library, herbarium, lecture room, horticultural workshop and auditorium.
Source: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, June 1993.
Key elements contributing to the heritage value of the Royal Botanical Gardens include:
- its layout, reflecting a 20th-century approach to botanical gardens, and consisting of a series of discrete gardens set within the network of the parkway;
- its horticultural collections;
- the classification and labelling of collections;
- the Rock Garden, including its winding paths, steps, ledges, crevices, pools, flower beds and living collections;
- the Laking Garden, including its informal beds of herbaceous perennials; and its major collections of irises and other perennials;
- the Teaching Garden;
- the Arboretum, including the arrangement of trees along avenues radiating from the central parking circle and important collections of hedges, shrubs, weeping trees, Dogwood, rhododendron and azalea, conifers, native plants, hawthorn, forsythia, crab-apple, beech, and lilacs;
- the Katie Osborne Lilac Collection;
- Hendrie Park, including its geometric layout along a principal axis, major gardens such as the Centennial Rose Garden, the Medicinal Garden, the World of Botany, and the Morrison Woodland Garden, as well as garden structures such as a fountain court, a tea house, the Turner Pavilion, rose arbours, and plant collections such as the climbing plant collection;
- its conservation area, consisting of more than 800 hectares of marsh, shallow lake, woodland, meadow, escarpment face, and agricultural land;
- the interpretive centre, including its greenhouses and indoor gardens such as the Mediterranean Garden.