Tulips are one of the very first signs that spring has sprung, so what better way to celebrate the gardening season’s return than by attending the Canadian Tulip Festival?

This time of year, the nation’s capital of Ottawa is home to sprawling garden beds popping with vibrant shades of red, yellow, orange, purple and pink. With more than a million tulips of all different colors, shapes, and sizes in bloom, you can’t help but be left in awe by both their beauty and rich history.

Canadian Tulip Festival

You might be thinking that once you’ve seen a few tulips, you’ve seen them all. I can assure you that’s not the case! While walking the grounds this week, I discovered so many varieties I never even knew existed. I fell in love with the “Canada 150” series, a red-and-white tulip designed and bred by the Dutch in honor of Canada’s 150th birthday. The contrast, when planted next to the deep, red “Canadian Liberator” tulip, is astounding.

Gorgeous, bright pink petals show off the “Amazing Grace” variety, and the eye-catching “Monte Carlo” features a double row of golden yellow petals with red edges. Elegant stems grace the “Copper Image” tulip, a peony look-alike with a shade that matches its name. The results are breathtaking when combined with lavender, hostas, and ferns.

While walking the gardens, you come to appreciate just how much hard work and planning goes into this festival; in anticipation of the spring, the National Capital Commission plants the bulbs every fall. The varieties are chosen for their shape, size, height, texture, and color, as well as their symbolic significance. Some tulips, like the “Canadian Liberator”, are planted every year to ensure they never disappear. And while it’s easy to be distracted by the beauty and effort put into the festival, it’s also impossible to overlook the history and what all of these tulips represent.

A Deeper Meaning

Since 1953, the festival has been celebrating the tulip as an international symbol of friendship. It all began after Canada received a gift of thanks from the Netherlands following WWII. On May 10th, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands, forcing the most vulnerable to go into hiding. The devastation was unimaginable; 75 percent of the Jewish population living there was killed, and 230,000 Dutch died in the violence.

Canada provided the safe haven for Princess Juliana and her children during the war, and in 1945, liberated the Netherlands from the Nazis. In a show of gratitude, Princess Juliana gave Canada 100,000 tulip bulbs after the war, and the Dutch royal family has gifted an additional 10,000 every year since.

Beyond The Gardens

Canadian Tulip Festival

This festival is a treat for all the senses; there are so many activities and exhibitions centered around this year’s ‘World of Tulips’ theme. An art gallery features the work of talented artists as well as some stunning horticultural displays. On the grounds and throughout the city of Ottawa stand hundreds of 5-foot tulip sculptures, beautifully-painted to honor both the living and the dead, as well as peaceful nations around the world. 

A featured ‘urban tulip’ experience didn’t focus on many tulips, but rather toured local establishments with sustainable and healthy living in mind, which, in my opinion, is something we should all be more interested in. Culinary experiences available at the festival focus on tasting florals, and musical performances showcase talents and cultural tastes from around the world.

In case you’re hoping to make it to next year’s Canadian Tulip Festival, the theme will celebrate the “China-Canada Tulip Friendship”. You’ll have the opportunity there to learn more about China’s tulip festivals and gardens.

It doesn’t matter what your skill level is; if you enjoy gardening, it’s well worth the trip to Ottawa. The festival was a fantastic cultural experience, and there’s nothing more therapeutic than being out in the sunshine, surrounded by nature, beauty, and history.   

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Catherine Sherriffs
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Catherine Sherriffs

Catherine has a degree in journalism and political science from Concordia University in Montreal. She worked in radio and television as a reporter and news anchor for ten years before starting a family. Now, she's living a quiet country life raising her two young kids with her husband and is loving every second of it. Her interests include healthy eating, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.
Catherine Sherriffs
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