Malak Karsh: Canada's Immortal Tulip King
by Leslie Smith Dow
by Leslie Smith Dow

Ottawa gardener Leslie Smith Dow has been a journalist for two decades, writing about everything from horses to rock 'n' roll. Her articles have appeared in Canadian Gardening, Ottawa Citizen, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, Medical Post, Canadian Horseman, Performing Arts in Canada and many other publications.

She is the author of two award-winning books, Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond the King and I (Pottersfield Press) for which she won the Canadian Authors' Association-Air Canada Award for most promising Canadian writer under 30; and Adele Hugo: La Miserable (Goose Lane Editions), winner of the Dartmouth Book Award and finalist for Ontario's Trillium Book Award.

She has just completed The Diary of Death: Charles Lennox's Life in Canada.

Leslie continually complains her garden is never large enough and surreptitiously enlarges it when her grass-loving husband and two sons aren't looking, so she may plant still more flowers and vegetables.

August 31, 2003

Malak Karsh will be forever identified by Ottawans with their beloved tulip festival. Other Canadians might recognize the $1.05 international stamp that bears his lush photograph of a red tulip. Known simply as "Malak", his speciality was photographing Ottawa's millions of tulips in full-colour bloom. The famed 86-year-old architectural and industrial photographer died in Ottawa on November 8, 2001, of leukemia, but his memory lives on this spring with the dedication of the Canadian Tulip Festival to the man who started it all.

Three million tulip bulbs will sprout this spring in Ottawa--popping out of nearly every public space and countless private gardens--attracting thousands of visitors worldwide. For Tulip Festival director Michel Gauthier, every single one of them will bloom for Malak. Last fall, only two weeks before his death, Malak helped distribute 50,000 tulip bulbs to ottawa schoolchildren, marking the festival's 50th anniversary this year. Malak was to yhave been the festival's honorary president.

Born in Armenia (now Turkey) in 1915, Malak came to Ottawa in 1937 from Syria to work with brother Yousef (the portrait photographer Karsh). The brothers regularly visited the Gatineau Hills, camping out on weekends. It was there, believes his widow, Barbara, that Malak's love of nature was kindled. In 1946, the first beds of 200,000 tulips bloomed at Dow's Lake, part of Ottawa's Rideau Canal. One hundred thousand bulbs were given the previous year to Ottawa by Dutch Princess (soon to be Queen) Julianaa to thank Canada for sheltering her family during World War II; the other 100,000 were from the people of Holland for liberating the country from Nazi occupation. (The Duch royal family still sends 20,000 tulip bulbs annually.)

Malak hastened to Dow's Lake, near Carleton University, to photograph the first blossoms; he sent prints to newspapers across the country, receiving $1 to $3 for each shot that was published. "It was the first flower he had really taken note of," says Mrs.Karsh, and it soon became the bloom with which he was most associated.

By 1948, he was official representative for the Associated Bulb Growers of Holland in North America; but he became ill in 1951. "As he was lying in bed he thought it would be good to have a tulip festival," recalls Mrs. Karsh. The Ottawa Board of Trade liked the idea, and in 1952, the Tulip Festival was born. Malak was on his way to earning his nickname, "the Tulip King." (Malak means 'king' in Arabic.) In 1984, the Netherlands International Flower Bulb Information Centre honoured him with a luminously hot pink Trimph tulip named 'Malak Karsh."

Malak's involvement in the Canadian Tulip Festival, especially his photographs, made the festival a success, says Gauthier. "He had a way of seeing the beauty of these tulips and expressing it, and that was the magic of it."

Malak received a host of awards for his photographs and for his promotion of his adopted land, including the Order of Canada in 1996; in 1999, he and Yousef received the keys ot Ottawa. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth based on a photoraph by Yousef appeared on the $2 bill in 1973 and on the $1 bill of the same year was the image of a log boom on the Ottawa River based on a photograph taken by Malak. He turned Parliament Hill's Peace Tower into a Canadian icon with his many photographs, and captured prime ministers Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, Louis St. Laurent, Joe Clark, John Diefenbaker and others with his lens, often posing them in front of Parliament Hill's tulip beds. Malak was buried on Remembrance Day, 2001, in MacLaren Cemetery in Wakefield, Quebec, nestled among the Gatineau Hills he so loved.

This article first appeared in the April, 2002 issue of Canadian Gardening.

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