Documents: Regional Gardens (Canada) - East Coast:

Native Wildflowers Within theCity of Nanaimo & Whistling Gardens

A large area of native wildflowers within the boundaries of the City of Nanaimo; and a new garden opens in southern Ontario.
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

May 27, 2012

Above, One of the identifying signs placed at the ‘entrance’ to Harewood Plains in Nanaimo; three shots of parts of the Plains themselves, showing the extensive blue camas (Camassia) and pink sea blush (Plectritis congesta); two shots of the rare bog birds-foot trefoil (Lotus pinnatus) taken by Bryant Deroy and Charles Thirkill respectively; a slimleaf onion (Allium amplectens); and a small group of fairy slipper orchids (Calypso bulbosa). Below, two shots of Whispering Gardens’ expansive collection of conifers; a general shot of some of the summer perennials; and three badgers in the sand and ornamental grasses. Latter four photos by Darrel Heimbecker. All other photos not separately identified are by the Author.

Nearly two years ago, in More Living a small newsprint-type magazine published locally in Nanaimo, I noted reference to an extensive area of wildflowers located within in the boundaries of that city. The article was writ-ten by Norm Wagenaar, and the area is called Harewood Plains which is almost entirely owned by Island Timberlands. A group, Friends of the Harewood Plains (Friends), working with the company have made significant progress in protecting the area from degradation caused by ATV and mud bike users. Charles Thirkill, of Friends says that “In ten percent of those meadows the mosses and flowers have already been obliterated.”

The soil is extremely shallow in the area, and hence if often takes many years for the scars left by a single ATVer to recover. However, the Friends working with the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team have blocked off trails and put up signage and this seems to be getting the message across. The groups have also been removing non-native species to get more light, moisture and nutrients, thus allowing many of the wild flowers to do quite well. Charles Thirkill of the Friends credits the co-operation of Island Timberlands. He says “They are managing it sensitively,” and “They are really good to work with.”

The Plains contain at least 16 rare and possible endangered species of wildflower, plus large numbers of common wildflowers such as camas (Camasia spp), sea blush (Plectritis congesta) and fairy slipper orchid. The Friends have also gained one particular flower that grows there increased publicity by having the City of Nanaimo name it as the city’s floral emblem (in 2010). That flower is Lotus pinnatus or bog birds-foot trefoil. Resultant from a flower count, the Friends have estimated that the approximately 1,500 Lotus pinnatus located on the plains represent about 80 to 90 per cent of the species found in all of Canada. The balance are located on nearby Gabriola Island, and in an area a little further south on the island, near Ladysmith.

It was interesting for me to read that these plains are one of the area’s unique ecosystems, located just south of Nanaimo. If you are in the area within the next month, simply travel on the Nanaimo Parkway (Highway 19) to Cranberry Avenue (access only from south-bound lanes, just north of the Duke Point Highway exit). Cranberry Avenue becomes Extension Road and in only a few metres you will see McKeown Way. Drive to the roadblock at the end of the road, park, and walk the rest of the way to the plains, first seen on the left (Hwy. 19 being to the right).

According to Charles Thirkill, the plains are an area of Nanaimo conglomerate, a mix of sandstone and gravel which has been compressed by the earth’s natural forces for the past 85 million years or so. He says the resulting material is like poorly set cement. “Some people even mistake it for concrete.”

Overlying this is a shallow layer of soil, 5 to 20 cm (two to eight inches) deep, too thin for trees. “Even Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) cannot grow there, so you’re left with grasses and wild flowers.”

When we visited the Harewood Plains last Sunday, it was a cloudy day and trying continuously to rain, but not actually doing so. It was actually a fairly good day to get reasonable photographs. Since neither of us were at our best for walking, we did not infiltrate the plains too far, but certainly did see numerous meadows in full bloom with cammas (Camasia) and sea blush (Plectritis congesta). I’ve included a number of photos taken last week for your enjoyment.

* * *

If you live in southern Ontario, and thus unable at the moment to visit Harewood Plains, there is a new Botanical Garden just opening to the public. In fact it opened this past Saturday, May 26. It is called Whispering Gardens Ltd., and is the dream and brainchild of Darrel Heimbecker. In the making for the past five years, it had been a dream of Darrel’s for over 25 years. He says, “It has been a physical, financial and emotional struggle to continue. Of all my travels around the world, this journey has been the most challenging, exciting and rewarding experience all at the same time. It has conjured every possible emotion. Every time I have wanted to walk away from it, something pulled me back. I’m glad those dark days are behind me now.

“I’ve learned a lot about plants, fountain mechanics, building everything from stone bridges to arbors, not to fight Mother Nature, but mostly I’ve learned a lot about myself especially my fierce determination to see it through. I’m excited and happy to see the progress of the gardens and the plants flourishing. I also want to thank vast amounts of people who have helped and urged me on during this process. You have inspired me to keep going.

“The gardens are still young but they are growing at a ‘tree’mendous rate. Some four-foot trees I planted just a few years ago are now 18-20’ tall. Others that were four inches tall are well, still four inches tall, they are miniatures and behaving the way they are supposed to.

“I truly feel the gardens have something for everyone. I have many more ideas that have yet to become reality.

“Whistling Gardens is a dream I have kept alive for nearly 30 years. I hope people will enjoy the gardens now and for many generations to come.”

As mentioned, the gardens opened officially on Saturday May 26th. There are almost 7.2 h (18 acres) that have “been cultivated and sculpted into six major gardens and collections.” Darren says that “all the gardens have been seamlessly connected with nearly four km of walking paths. Whistling Gardens is home to the largest public collection of conifers in the world with over 2,200 species, hybrids and cultivars on site.”

Before the Garden, came Darren’s garden centre, which “offers the largest selection of conifers in the country and focuses mainly on rare and unusual woody treasures. For several years already, Whistling Gardens has attracted collectors and gardeners across several provinces and the U.S.”

If you are in Ontario and wish to pay a visit in the near future here are some directions: the address officially is 698 Concession 3 Townsend Road, Wilsonville, ON N0E 1Z0. That is in Norfolk County, called the Garden County, just minutes south of Brantford and 20 minutes south of Hwy. 403. Check it out on Google Maps.    

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