A winter garden, fleeting canvas

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I made a rare winter visit to VanDusen Botanical Garden about a week ago. It was a spur of the moment decision that occurred when my daughter and I actually had the same morning off, so we just got in the car and drove.

Admittedly, mid-January is not exactly high season as most of the gardeners were busy dismantling the Christmas light displays and the winter-flowering shrubs (Witch Hazel, Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn', Mahonia x media 'Charity') were barely showing any colour.

So the garden had to stand on its own merits, which are essentially the structure of the overall landscape design (that is currently undergoing changes) and the bare bones of the many dormant trees and shrubs.

Yet there is another element to the winter garden which seems to defy definition, something more ephemeral that the plants, water features and hard landscape that define the parameters of what we call a civilized green space.

There is little substance to this mysterious element, and to be honest, it really isn't any one thing. It is borne of freeze and thaw, light and shadow, the warmth of the sun, the cold touch of a winter's breeze and  the fact that we are there to witness it.

But being thick-headed Homo sapiens, we were slow to appreciate this subtle beauty, and since there weren't any flowers about, we went looking for some berries on the Mountain Ash trees in the arboretum instead.

We arrived to find that the Varied Thrushes had devoured all the red and orange fruit, with only the amber berries of Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' still intact and positively glowing in the low, fleeting sun. A few steps later we encountered more berries lost in the frosted bare branches of a Fishbone Cotoneaster (C. horizontalis), looking like some bright red beetles caught in an intricate spider's web. And then there were the perfect tiny scarlet beads of a Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) dangling like jewels against a tapestry of fallen leaves carpeting the forest floor below.

Throughout the garden there were silver-painted branches still stuck into the ground by the paths as part of the Festival of Lights display, but my daughter noticed what appeared to be a thicket of them at a distance and asked me why they had put so many way out there. I knew what we were looking at, the shining white stems (they are actually purple, covered with a heavy white bloom) of Ghost Bramble, or Rubus thibetanus, and I told Rochelle that that was nature's silver paint.

A few steps over a magnificent Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' was vying for our attention, with its red-tipped orange stems looking like it was in flames as the winter sun flickered upon it.

The temperature started dropping as the shadows encroached, so Rochelle and I started walking back and as we crossed paths with a Stewartia monadelpha she enticed us with the lines of her elegant trunk covered in flaky cinnamon brown to orange bark.

We left VanDusen without seeing any botanical specimens in their prime, but content in the knowledge that the best part of a winter garden moment is that there is nothing that we can do to enhance or improve upon it – it unfolds exactly as planned, regardless of our inputs. The stems still shine brightly, the shadows shift, the berries gleam and the bark peels all right on cue whether or not we stop to appreciate it, but just being there also makes you a part of this fleeting seasonal canvas.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at

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