BY GARY MAY
There seemed nothing extraordinary in Ottawa about the morning of Jan. 19, 1943. It was cold — the temperature minus 10C — and it snowed a bit. You could say it was a typical Ottawa winter day. Nor was it unusual for a baby to be born that day at Ottawa Civic Hospital. But this was no ordinary baby.
She was Princess Margriet Francisca, third daughter of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. At no time before — nor any time since — has a royal baby been born anywhere in North America. To ensure the baby’s Dutch citizenship, the Canadian government of then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King took the unusual step of temporarily ceding the room where the child was born to the Netherlands.
That day on Parliament Hill, the flag of the Netherlands flew from Parliament’s Peace Tower and Princess Margriet was born a Dutch citizen on Dutch soil — in Canada.
It was wartime and with their own country under German occupation, some members of the Dutch royal family had taken refuge in Canada until the fighting was over in May 1945. To thank the Canadian people for their hospitality, as well as the effort the Canadian military made in helping to free their country, the government of the Netherlands sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa. In 1946, Princess Juliana personally sent another 20,000 bulbs.
At first, the Canadian government was unsure just what to do with the bulbs. But once they were planted around the city, and photographs of their stunning blooms began to turn up in newspapers across the country, the flowers became a significant attraction to the national capital.
Many of the most brilliant of those pictures were taken by the Armenian-born Canadian photographer, Malak Karsh. In 1953, at the suggestion of Karsh, the first Canadian Tulip Festival was held. This year will mark the 59th edition. It is the largest tulip festival in the world and continues to be dedicated to Canada’s role in freeing the Dutch during the war. And every year, the Dutch send over more tulip bulbs.
Symbol of international friendship
The festival has grown and changed. Today its mandate is to celebrate the tulip as a symbol of international friendship. Organizers, volunteers, artists, performers, tourists and local festival-goers all join in what has become an annual rite of spring, one of the country’s best-known and most popular cultural events. Besides the ever-present tulips, the festival is marked by music and other entertainment and a United Nations of culinary tastes.
Multicultural. Friendship. Peace. Food. Celebrating spring. How much more Canadian could it be?
Every May, Ottawa’s waterways — the historic Rideau Canal and the region’s three major rivers — form the heart of “tulip country.” You can walk, bicycle or drive along those waterways and observe the more than one million tulips of about 50 varieties that are on display. Shuttle buses are available to take you from one venue to another.
A good route that lets you enjoy the best of the tulips begins at the edge of the National Experimental Farm on Prince of Wales Drive and heads down along the north shore of Dow’s Lake. There you’ll find yourself in the midst of a magnificent display of colour. The area is called Commissioners Park and it represents the largest concentration of tulips at the festival — about 300,000.
Adding to the atmosphere of the park area are the sparkling waters of Dow’s Lake — in reality simply a widening of the canal — the majestic homes of the Glebe and the entrance to Ottawa’s Little Italy along Preston Street. The venue offers a feast for the senses.
Continuing north along the canal, there are many tulip plantings, magnificent heritage homes and little parks. As you turn the final curve in the canal, an unobstructed view reveals the famed Château Laurier Hotel, its easily recognizable French château turrets lending it a magical sort of Disneyland quality. As you draw closer, raise your gaze from the tulip beds to the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
Parliament Hill is a mass of multi-coloured tulips. Stop for a walk around the historic buildings and check out the expansive views of the Ottawa River. Then head across the Rideau Canal toward the Château Laurier, behind which sits Major’s Hill Park, which is the festival’s main entertainment venue.
More tulips to photograph across the bridge in Gatineau
You can also continue past the National Gallery of Canada and over the Alexandra Interprovincial Bridge to Gatineau, where there are more plantings around the Canadian Museum of Civilization and along the Ottawa River.
While the tulips are the star attraction of the festival, there are many more family-oriented events. Canadian and international artists display their works, there are movies in Major’s Hill Park and there’s a kid’s zone called FUNtasia. Among those who have performed at the tulip festival in past years are Alannis Morissette, Big Sugar and Liberace.
This year’s musical talent will include a multimedia Beatles Tribute band performance on May 13 called Flower Power. Major’s Hill will be a feast of international cultural sensations.
Perhaps the highlight of the festival is the ever-popular tulip ball. This funky mix of champagne, entertainment and amazing formal and national costume wear is by paid-ticket only, and this year will be held at the new Ottawa Convention Centre. Floral gowns created by Gatineau florist Joel-Marc Frappier will be featured, and party-goers often adorn their costumes with tulip blooms. The tulip ball is one of the festival’s few paid events, with tickets sold through the tulip festival
Major’s Hill Park vies with Commissioners Park as a popular venue for amateur and professional photographers wanting to find the ideal spot to capture the flowers’ beauty.
“Some of the themes of the festival that we’re showcasing this year are peace and friendship,” festival executive director Geneviève Ménard-Hayles told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
She said May 14 will be India Day, and a classic Bollywood film, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, will be screened. Indian music will be performed by the Nomadic World Orchestra and there’ll be a puppet show, Bollywood dancing and arts and crafts.
This year there will also be an Aboriginal Experience that reviews the First Nations’ contribution to Canada’s history and culture, plus the usual Mother’s Day Garden Party.
There’ll also be a giant telescope installed in Major’s Hill Park for festival-goers to view the tulip beds through, and a Kaleidoscope Community Quilt Project.
For those prepared to venture a little farther afield, a trip up the Gatineau Parkway to Kingsmere, the former estate of Mackenzie King, is always rewarding. The estate opens about mid-May and offers another feast of tulip power. It features historic buildings as well as ruins placed by the eccentric former owner, and well-tended gardens. Warning: the mosquitoes are out in force once the warm weather comes, so be prepared.
The tulip celebration marks the beginning of Ottawa’s long summer season of festivals. But make no mistake: spring in Ottawa can be cool and showers come frequently. Dress warmly and prepare for rain — and maybe even a bit of snow. None of that stops the approximately 500,000 people who normally attend the event, however. Ottawa is truly Canada’s tulip capital.
The American Bus Association lists the tulip festival among the Top 100 events to visit in North America.
Over the festival’s long history, it has been officially opened by governors general, prime ministers and even Juliana — queen of the Netherlands from 1948 to 1980 — and her sister, the Ottawa-born Princess Margriet.
Origin of the tulip
You might be surprised to learn that despite the tulip’s links to the Netherlands, that is not its country of origin. The tulip grows naturally in temperate mountain regions across North Africa, Europe and Asia, but was first cultivated by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. The tulip was introduced from Turkey into central and western Europe in the 1500s.
Today, tulip festivals are held in England, the Netherlands and the United States — including Holland, Michigan.
Here are some tips from the National Capital Commission on the art of planting and growing tulips:
• Select a spot that gets full sun or bright light in spring.
• Choose soil with good drainage. Tulip bulbs have a tendency to rot if their toes get wet.
• To ensure weeks of colour, choose a variety of types of tulip. Some are early bloomers, some are mid-season and some bloom late.
• After they’ve bloomed, allow tulip leaves to turn brown before chopping them off. This lets the bulb replenish itself and ensures a healthy bloom next year. To help hide the withering leaves, plant tulips among perennials that will take over when tulip blooming season ends.
• Plant tulips in groups of seven to 15 for greater impact. Best time to plant bulbs is fall, before the ground freezes. Depending on where you live in Ontario, that could be from late September to late October, but you can even plant into November in milder parts of the province.
• Specific planting instructions come with each variety. It’s good to enrich the soil with a mix of bone meal. Plant bulbs pointed tip up.
• Once tulips have grown for several seasons, dig the bulbs up and remove smaller, less healthy bulbs, allowing the larger ones to thrive.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — April 2011