Discover the essence of VanDusen Botanical Garden and Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden.
Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter rotate like a kaleidoscope. A garden captures their essence. No matter how often you visit Vancouver’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden or VanDusen Botanical Garden, every day is a new show, a day to immerse all five senses in beauty and renew.
VanDusen Botanical Garden is a 55-acre party happening in slow motion: branches reach out mid-dance. Leaves glow. Flowers bob and laugh with each other in their finery.
Dinner-plate-sized flowers, complex flowers, tiny flowers like secrets are all nestled in their rightful places among family. At VanDusen, the Southern Hemisphere, Mediterranean, and Sino-Himalayan gardens live just down the walking path from each other, around the corner from the Cherry Grove, the Cypress Forest and the Giant Redwoods. It’s an international tour that never leaves Vancouver.
The urban refuge opened in 1975 after a group of people saved one of Vancouver’s last green spaces from housing development. Shaughnessy Golf Course occupied those slopes and vales until VanDusen’s landscape architects began arranging the 3,900 different species and 255,000 individual plants that grow there today.
Look closely behind one of your favorite blooms. Do you see a tag marked “Save for Seed?” That’s the first step by VanDusen’s volunteer seed collectors. They aid the Garden’s staff to preserve and propagate rare and endangered species and imbue people with wonder for the plant world. That mission honors the ancient purpose of botanical gardens in Egypt and Europe, originally sources of medicine. Thanks to their work and Vancouver’s mild, wet climate, seeds you purchase from the Garden can fill your backyard with exotic flora that friends and neighbours have never seen or heard of. It is one of the features that sets VanDusen apart from other botanical gardens and places it on numerous top ten lists.
A beguiling Elizabethan labyrinth, one of only six in North America, and the Visitor’s Centre, a building that is technically alive, one of only four “Living Buildings” on the continent, are two more of VanDusen’s attractions. After toasting biodiversity’s long life, you may be as inspired as ancient Taoists were by nature’s abundance and want to retreat to a place designed for meditation, poetry and painting. Luckily, Vancouver is home to a Ming Dynasty, classical Chinese garden.
The Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden, in 1986, was the first authentic Chinese garden open to the public outside China. It triumphed against the loveliest rose gardens in Paris to become National Geographic’s Best City Garden in the World in 2011.
Ming dynasty gardens were developed around residences and this one is no different. Step inside its high walls to find an intricately detailed, fifteenth-century replica of a Taoist scholar’s home with precise joinery and no nails, screws or glue. Fifty-two master craftsmen from Suzhou, China’s City of Gardens, and a Canadian support team constructed this masterpiece. Stroll under its eaves and you sense the philosophy that binds rock, water, plants and architecture.
“The architecture has to interweave the man-made and natural elements, so a balance of light and dark, soft and hard, curved and straight lines, void and mass is to be seen everywhere,” said S.K. Lee, past president of the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Garden Society of Vancouver in a 1983 Vancouver Sun article. “The success of the design depends on whether the contrasts are infinite and subtle, with neither aspect predominating.”
Plants here hold deep meaning. Winter pine stands for strength and eternity, bamboo for resiliency, and winter-flowering plum for triumphal rebirth: “three friends” seen throughout the Garden. Even people who don’t know them as symbols can sense the ancient mood they invoke. Cypress, magnolia, water lily, and rhododendron, planted together with species native to BC, represent a connection between East and West — one of the missions of the Garden.
Weathered limestone forms the garden’s bones, imported from Lake Tai near Suzhou. It is believed to bring good luck and unlock supernatural powers as it dramatically transforms over time.
This prized place grew out of a movement to stop the city from building an overpass above Chinatown. Residents agreed that a culturally significant landmark was just the thing to convince Vancouver’s leaders of the site’s true worth. Hundreds of thousands of international visitors, some of whom count it as their top destination in BC, have proven them right.
Photo by Peggy Heath/ Hugh Zhao/ Nancy Wong/ VanDusen Botanical Garden