Last spring, we were invited guests of the Ottawa Tulip Festival. It was the first year that the organizers chose the Highway of Heroes Tree Campaign as one of their supported charities. We were delighted. This year, we are back.
The grandmother of all Ottawa Festivals, the Canadian Tulip Festival has been the iconic Canadian brand synonymous with springtime in the nation’s capital since 1953. For over six decades, the festival has served as the only platform to celebrate the Dutch gift of tulips, which has become a firmly established and entrenched part of Ottawa’s identity. The Canadian Tulip Festival is incredibly popular with visitors from across Canada and the World, bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to the city to experience the significance and splendour of the historic tulip beds.
Millions of tulips bloom all across Canada’s national capital region every May, and for 11 days every spring, this gorgeous palette culminates in the nation’s largest and most colourful festival. Ottawa’s official flower, these stunning tulips set the stage for the upcoming celebration of tulip art, culture, heritage, garden and friendship. In 2019, the festival takes place from May 10 to 20.
A global experience
This year, the Canadian Tulip Festival celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Beijing-Ottawa “sister city” friendship. Beijing and Ottawa paired as sister cities in 1999, and in honour of our two decades of friendship, the 2019 official tulip, named the China-Canada Friendship Tulip, is the red-and-yellow triumph tulip, to represent our respective country’s colours in one glorious flower. The 2019 edition of the Canadian Tulip Festival also features Double Luck Fireworks with two reciprocal pyrotechnic shows, along with floating Dragon Boat Gardens and a vibrant Chinese Pavilion to create a stunning connection of cultures, set against the picturesque background of thousands of tulips at Commissioners Park and Dow’s Lake at the base of the iconic Rideau Canal.
The Dutch experience
Canadian Tulip Festival guides welcome you to tour the Royal Gift Tulip Bed and the Tulip Legacy Plaza and provide an overview of our Canadian tulip heritage, as well as our tulip legacy story. Explore the tulip gardens and enjoy the truly vibrant surroundings. Take time in the tulips and experience an explosion of over 1 km (over half a mile) of show-stopping, mass-planted tulips along the shores of Dow’s Lake. This display includes the Queen Juliana Gift Bed, where the Dutch gift of 20,000 tulip bulbs are planted. Nestled among hundreds of thousands of tulips is the Dutch Pavilion, which brings the heritage of yesterday into tomorrow, thanks to animated storytelling, and adds a touch of Dutch through treats, crafts and so much more.
A Canadian experience
Daytime cruises allow visitors to experience the festival from a whole new angle. Enjoy the glorious colours of millions of tulips during the daytime cruises or experience the incredibly popular fireworks cruises, which provide a vantage point unlike any other.
There are many other ways to indulge in these fantastic flowers, including bicycle rentals and daily bus tours. Explore the tulip gardens along the Garden Promenade, a 15 km (nine mile) route that includes the displays on Parliament Hill. The Garden Promenade celebrates Ottawa and Gatineau’s garden culture and tulip heritage with numerous partners and additional attractions. To help you discover the stories behind the gardens, step-on guides are also available to escort your motor coach along the Garden Promenade, as well as at historical sites across the city.
The nation’s capital, our country’s best-kept secret
Our country’s capital site was moved from Kingston to Ottawa so that it would be harder for our foes to the south to find. Built up at the intersection of three major rivers and two provinces, Ottawa has seen many identities throughout the years, from rough logging village to sleepy government town to vibrant tourism and festival destination. Some of the best accommodations in the world are right here in the nation’s capital, and the Canadian Tulip Festival is proud to partner with world-renowned hotels. Visitors can expect unparalleled service and amenities when booking accommodations in one of the festival’s official hotels, providing luxury, convenience and comfort. From authentic Chinese fare to French cuisine, from brasseries to bistros, Ottawa knows how to eat. Enjoy special tulip-themed menu offerings with the festival’s delicious restaurant partners. Whatever fare you are seeking, Ottawa-Gatineau official restaurant chefs are sure to satisfy.
The Highway of Heroes and the Canadian Tulip Festival
Getting to Ottawa-Gatineau by car usually means using Ontario’s Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, better known as Highway 401 for most North American visitors. In 2007, a 170 km (106 mile) portion of the highway stretching from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Keele Street in Toronto was designated the Highway of Heroes. This name reflects its use as the route for funeral convoys carrying fallen Canadian Forces service men and women from CFB Trenton to the coroner’s office in Toronto. This designation honours those men and women who have made such a vital contribution to our way of life, and it offers a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of Canadian veterans.
Honouring and remembering
Honouring veterans is a natural fit for the Canadian Tulip Festival, which was inspired by the gift of tulips from the Netherlands to Canada in gratitude for our support of their royal family during the Second World War. In the midst of the war, after Holland had fallen to Germany, Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and her young daughters, Beatrix and Irene, fled their home country. They found refuge in Canada’s capital. On January 19, 1943, Princess Juliana gave birth to Margriet Francisca at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. To ensure that the baby princess would have full Dutch citizenship, a federal proclamation declared the delivery room of the hospital “extraterritorial.” Canada was also helping on the home front and the front lines. Toward the end of the war, Canadian troops played an important role in liberating the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers and Dutch citizens celebrated the end of the winter of war, and sprung forward to a new era of peace and friendship (see photo on page TK). In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs as a gift of gratitude to Canadians for their role in liberating the Dutch and providing refuge for Princess Juliana and her family. The Netherlands has presented Canada with 20,000 bulbs every year since. With 2020 marking the 75th anniversary of the Dutch liberation, and the common theme of honouring veterans through horticulture, it made perfect sense for the Canadian Tulip Festival to support the Highway of Heroes on the festival’s Veterans Day on May 14, 2019. For more information about the Highway of Heroes and how you can become involved or create a tribute for your own veteran, please visit hohtribute.ca. For more info about the Canadian Tulip Festival and to plan your visit, check out tulipfestival.ca.
Whatever your taste in tulips, be sure to put the Ottawa Tulip Festival on your bucket list.
Mark and Ben Cullen’s Favourite Tulips
We both have been planting tulips for a long time. Our 10-acre garden (as are most gardens in Canada) is the perfect place to grow them. Tulips are winter hardy to Zone 2, well north of Edmonton, and they can be planted very late into the fall season. Truth is, it is hard to fail once you have placed your tulip bulbs in the ground come autumn. Here are some of our favourite tulips.
Toronto A multi-flowering tulip that flowers early season. Only maturing to about 30 cm (12 inches), Toronto is a bright rose red. It looks great in the foreground of a flower bed.
Calgary A pure white, mid-season triumph tulip. Another great border tulip that matures to about 25 cm (10 inches). Calgary, the tulip, received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. Not an easy feat!
The Mounties You could say that this mid-season triumph tulip features raspberry red or electric pink flowers, depending, perhaps, on whether you are looking at it in full sunshine or on a cloudy day. The flowers are unusual, flaring out at the top like a flower vase, giving it a strong, self-confident appearance, like a Canadian Mountie. In any case, it is a reliable garden performer with great colour. Grows to 60 cm (24 inches).
Quebec This greigii tulip is a 30 cm (12 inch) high showstopper. We like the fact that it naturalizes and continues to grow in our garden from year to year. Scarlet flower petals edged with buttercup yellow. Multi-flowering: like Toronto, a bouquet on every stem!
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster and tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son, Ben, is a fourth-generation urban gardener and a graduate of the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax.