Stephen Travels

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Japanese garden

University of Alberta Botanic Garden (Devon, Alberta)

I did not want to agree with the younger generation’s unflattering sobriquet for their hometown, Deadmonton, coined to reflect their perceived lack of anything to do, short of going to the West Edmonton Mall, the most visited and largest mall in North America, and the largest in the world until 2004. It’s a little mean-spirited. And, after all, I was enjoying my stay in the capital of Alberta. But Edmonton was making my resolve a little difficult. I had taken the tour of the beautiful Alberta Legislature Building, but I was the only person trailing behind my guide. The Muttart Conservatory was lovely, but, short of an arriving bridal party, no other visitors were present. Dinner at Khazana was superb, but I was the sole diner.


Autumn is a particularly pleasant time to visit.

So I began to look farther afield for diversions and came upon the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, which, not surprisingly, was also devoid of people. But here, amid 240 acres of cultivated gardens and plant collections, as well as extensive natural areas, that works to its advantage.

A 20-minute drive out of Edmonton and just north of Devon, one of the world’s most beautiful botanic gardens was established in 1959 as the Botanic Garden and Field Laboratory by the Botany Department at the University of Alberta. The Canadian province’s largest garden was renamed the Devonian Botanic Garden in recognition of the Devonian Foundation’s major contributions to repair the severe damage caused by floods in the 1970s, create a system of canals and ponds, erect a headquarters building, and purchase more land. In 2017, it took on its current name just a few years after the Canadian Garden Council singled it out as Botanical Garden of the Year, in 2014.

Wandering around the grounds, I was impressed by the diversity of the plant life as well as the whimsical touches added by thoughtful, creative staff, such as the terra-cotta flowerpot family: the father, mother, and seated child, wearing gardening gloves and holding rakes.

Emphasis is placed on plants that can thrive in Alberta’s cold northern climate, and I found them on full display in the Alpine Garden, one of the largest such gardens in North America. Occupying five acres, the garden contains plants that survive at a latitude where people start to peter out. Deciduous trees in full autumnal splendor of crimsons and oranges fringe rocky paths, and perfect pine cones dangle from tree branches.

Stone lantern

Stone lanterns guide you on your stroll through the Japanese garden.

Of course, the garden is not only about cold-loving flora. Collections of lilacs, lilies, peonies, primula, and roses add bursts of color in spring and summer. The fragrant Herb & Sensory Gardens feature medicinal and edible plants that stimulate all our senses, cure some of our illnesses, and make our dinners more flavorful. That latter benefit is also apropos of the Fruits & Vegetables Garden, where produce like the raspberry and saskatoon (which, until I visited this garden, I knew only as the name of the Canadian city, and not a berry) is rotated on a seasonal basis. It’s also where I found an ode to lettuce, by American writer Charles Dudley Warner:

Lettuce is like a conversation:
It must be fresh and crisp,
And so sparkling
That you scarcely notice
The bitter in it.

My favorite section was the Kurimoto Japanese Garden. Added to the botanic garden in 1990 and designed in the kaiyou (strolling garden) style, it takes its name from Yuichi Kurimoto, the first Japanese national to graduate from UA’s Faculty of Arts, in 1930. Through the Japanese Garden Gate, I entered this five-acre oasis of tranquility, complete with stone lanterns, curved paths, bridges crossing over the pond and a waterfall, a belfry and pagoda, and asumayas — viewing shelters that provide a bit of protection during a rainstorm or Alberta snows while still enabling you to enjoy vistas of the grounds.


Butterflies are free to fly all around you.

Plummeting temperatures are another reason to seek shelter, and I found mine inside the steamy Tropical Showhouse. Exotic flowers and plants that love the heat flourish here, and while I was admiring them, a free-flying butterfly or two would flit by and land on the object of my interest.

At long last, I found fellow humans. A healthy crowd had gathered for the indoor one-weekend-only apple workshop, one of many events the garden sponsors every year. Plates piled with mounds of dozens of different varieties of apples, labeled and some sliced, were displayed for visitors’ education — and appetites. Varieties I had never heard of before, like the Gemini and the prairie sensation, lined the folding tables like tempting edible balls of red and yellow.

As I left for the day, snacking on the moist and tasty apple-cinnamon muffin I picked up at the apple fest, I was suddenly happy that Edmonton was sort of earning its unfortunate nickname; I wouldn’t have discovered this garden if it hadn’t.

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