A spark of hope, rescued from Haida Gwaii, grows in Norfolk County's Whistling Gardens.
Strolling through the grounds of Whistling Gardens early on a sunny autumn day, I was dazzled by the brilliant colors of the cheerful flowers bobbing in the breeze. Leaves of all shapes and sizes rippled from the trees and a hearty selection of wild grasses created velvety swaths, undulating and twinkling in the sun.
Little did I realize that Whistling Gardens' most extraordinary plant would be a small, scruffy, rabbit-nibbled shrub.
As I passed through gorgeous flower gardens and unique arboreal groupings, I soon learned that owner Darren Heimbecker was no ordinary gardener. Paying no attention to accepted botanical wisdom, he nurtures many plants and trees that are better suited to the climates of Florida and Mexico. While a part of his success can be attributed to the favorable growing conditions of the Norfolk County microclimate, I suspect his “Give it a shot” attitude plays a bigger role in keeping his unusual flowered friends healthy and happy.
Darren’s passion for plants and his willingness to turn a blind eye to convention has led to some impressive distinctions, including having the largest conifer collection of any botanical garden in the world. Among the over 2500 tree varieties is an extremely rare Chinese Silver Leafed Cathaya, one of only 2 in Canada, as well as one of the rarest plants in the world, the Baishan fir, of which only three remain in the wild.
And tucked in a shady corner, among its majestic cousins is a petite, unassuming, slightly tatty little tree whose one redeeming feature seems to be its golden hued needles. It’s very likely I would have passed by without giving it a single glance if Darren hadn't revealed its true identity. Just inches from my feet was a part of the Golden Spruce.
For over three hundred years, the original Golden Spruce thrived, against all logic and all odds, in an old growth forest on British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte/ Haida Gwaii Islands. It was the only tree of its kind in the world; its unique coloring attributed to a genetic mutation causing a lack of cholorphyll. Sacred to the Haida people, who called it Kiidk'yaas, the Golden Spruce was cherished by Aboriginals across North America and beloved by all residents of Haida Gwaii.
In 1997, a disturbed individual felled the Golden Spruce as a political statement against logging companies. In an instant, the spectacular 300 year old tree was no more. Fortunately there was a glimmer of hope. As it lay dying, grafts were taken to augment those harvested 20 years early by a group of visiting botanists. Those grafts are now all that remains of one of the world’s most beautiful, unique, and significant trees.
By luck or fate, one of those tiny saplings made its way to Whistling Gardens, where it found its rightful place among a collection of the world’s most special trees, plants, and flowers. While its somewhat reminiscent of a "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree at present, it is growing on a firm foundation and I have no doubt that it will flourish under Darren’s watchful eye, slowly evolving into a tall, stately, glorious conifer.
Surely, with so many rare and precious plants, Darren must take special precautions to protect them against the freezing temperatures, harsh winds, and heavy snows of the Canadian winter.
When I ask him what he does to protect his exceptionally valuable collection, Darren just laughs. “I tell them 'See you in the spring!'” With such an inspiring leader at the helm, the plants dare not die off in the frost!
At Whistling Gardens, every plant tells a story and, collectively, they paint a picture of one man’s passion, dedication, and vision. With no government funding, Darren Heimbecker is preserving Canadian heritage, one sapling at a time, and revolutionizing how we think about plants and nature.
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My visit to Whistling Gardens was facilitated by Norfolk County Tourism. This did not affect my reviews and all opinions remain my own.