Biodiversity Gardening Miscellany

Tulips and Weasels

Greetings fellow plant lovers, this crazy-busy time of year continues so it may be another week or so before I can resume my regular science-based posts. In the meantime, allow me to share some observations about spring in Ottawa.

Ottawa Tulip Festival

This past Wednesday morning, I joined a group from the Ottawa Horticultural Society for an exclusive tour of the tulip beds at Dow’s Lake. Our tour guide was none other than Tina Liu, Landscape Architect for the National Capital Commission and the artistic genius behind the gorgeous tulip bed designs that have made Ottawa’s Tulip Festival a must-see event.

Tina Liu showing members of OHS around at the Queen Julianna tulip bed, Commissionaire’s Park, Dow’s Lake, Ottawa. Photo by R. Last.

We met at the Queen Julianna bed, one of the “drive-by” flower beds that entice passing motorists to slow down and maybe even stop to smell the flowers. Tina explained that this bed features the earliest tulips and is also where the bulbs gifted annually by the Dutch government are planted. Contrary to popular belief, tulips in all the other beds at Commissionaire’s Park, Dow’s Lake, are purchased by the National Capital Commission (NCC). Ensuring there are enough tulips, flowering at regular intervals during the festival period, on a relatively modest budget makes the design exercise both a logistical and accounting challenge as well as an artistic one!

Stately Elizabeth Arden tulips are supposed to be a later variety. However, the combination of rain and warmer temperatures saw them blooming early this year, underlining the challenge of ensuring continuous blooms. Photo by R. Last.

Tina is a font of knowledge about the history of the tulip festival. During WWII, members of the Dutch royal family sought refuge in Ottawa. Princess Julianna was born in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, which is located just west of Commissionaire’s Park. Members of the Dutch royalty must be born on Dutch soil to have a claim on the throne. Accordingly, the Government of Canada declared the maternity wing where Julianna was born to be temporarily designated as Dutch sovereign territory.

As a thank you for Canada’s hospitality, after the war ended, the Dutch government began a tradition of gifting tulips to Canada. The Federal District Commission (predecessor of the NCC) initially wanted to plant the tulips on Parliament Hill but Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought the site too solemn to host such colourful blooms. However, while Mackenzie King was away on business, the FDC snuck up to the Hill and planted the tulip bulbs anyway. Since they were underneath the turf, no one knew they were there until the next spring. It seems Mackenzie King wasn’t too upset about this guerilla planting because the NCC archives include a photo of him smiling in front of the tulips.

This exuberantly coloured bed of double tulips was inspired by Tina’s father, whose favorite video game is Candy Crush.

Least Weasel

Thursday afternoon, I worked with a couple of my MG colleagues to offer advice to gardeners visiting Beetbox Farm in Ottawa’s west end. It was a lovely sunny day and a wonderful way to spend a few hours outdoors in a bucolic setting.

Master Gardeners in Training Kathleen Atkinson (L) and Adrian Barber (R) at the MGOC advice clinic at Beetbox Farm. The heavy chain in the foreground helped to hold all our papers in place, as there was a pleasant breeze.

For me the most notable event to occur during this advice clinic was that we spotted a least weasel, which was living in the mound visible at the extreme left of the photo above. The least weasel (Mustela nivalis) is the smallest weasel and one of the smallest carnivores in North America. Although their size varies and there are several sub-species, the little fellow we saw was about the size of a chipmunk but sleeker and perhaps slightly longer in the body. Apparently they are classified as least concern by the IUCN, due to their wide distribution and large population. Yet, this was the first time I had ever seen one.

Alaskan least weasel (Mustela nivalis eskimo). Photo by Cecil Sanders.

As a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, I grew up thinking of stoats and weasels as the bad guys. Indeed, the least weasel is apparently a fearsome predator and has been known to take down prey several times its size and weight. Relative to its body size, the weasel has a stronger bite force than a lion, tiger, hyena, or even a bear. To the Toad, Mole and Ratty, heroes of Wind in the Willows, this would make them formidable foes. But I find it hard to square the awe I felt at seeing this tiny, cute creature with the band of cutthroats portrayed in Grahame’s classic.

From Reading Kingdom, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, is one of the Reading Kingdom’s recommended books for children.

We are privileged to live in a world with so many other wonderful creatures. Seeing this little least weasel was a reminder to me of how precious they all are, and of our responsibility to steward these creatures and protect their habitats to others can also enjoy them.