This spring, close to one million tulip bulbs will cover Ottawa in a sea of red, yellow, orange, pink, purple and white. The Canadian Tulip Festival (May 13 to 23) will be marking its 70th anniversary, and this year’s celebration includes extended hours, new activities, and unique exhibits commemorating the special relationship that first inspired the event.
Following the end of World War II, Canada received 100,000 tulip bulbs from the Netherlands in 1945. It was a generous gift to thank Canadians for sheltering Princess Juliana and her young family in Ottawa from 1940 to 1945, and a gesture of gratitude for this country’s pivotal role in liberating the Netherlands.
Princess Juliana donated an additional 20,500 bulbs the following year, and a heartfelt tradition was born. The colorful blooms served as a muse to local resident and renowned photographer Malak Karsh, who suggested the idea of hosting an annual festival to the Ottawa Board of Trade. Launched in 1953, the Canadian Tulip Festival is now the largest event of its kind in the world.
When Jo Riding became the festival’s executive director in 2019, she wanted to reroot the event in heritage and horticulture. Celebrating the bonds between Canada and the Netherlands is front of mind for Riding, who describes the relationship between the two countries as “an international friendship unlike any other.”
This year’s festival features a gorgeous exhibition of oil paintings on wood by artist Bev Tosh alongside details from Canadian Heritage honoring Dutch war brides who came to Canada. Their stories are equal parts romance and nervous anticipation, and Tosh’s artistry celebrates their spirit and resourcefulness. Keep an eye out for the tale of one bride who made her own wedding dress by upcycling a very unexpected material.
Nearly a third of the festival’s one million tulips bloom in Commissioners Park in central Ottawa. For the first time, this year the Canadian Tulip Festival will extend its hours beyond dusk and stay open until 11 pm Many of the tulip beds will be illuminated, and after-hours activities include outdoor screenings of National Film Board of Canada movies, such as “Borealis” and “The Sweater.”
However, the star of the new evening programming is undisputedly the Blacklight Boardwalk. Sixteen long tulip planters will line the Dow’s Lake boardwalk next to Commissioners Park. Each planter will be illuminated by black light, demonstrating what the flowers would look like to bees, which see via the UV spectrum.
“When the pollen bursts open from the flowers, it looks like a Jackson Pollock (painting), glowing everywhere, and that’s what the pollinators see when they go out to do their job,” explains Riding, describing the display as both entertaining and educational .
Riding is expecting an excellent turnout this year and theorizes that locals will be especially eager to celebrate Ottawa’s beauty. “After everything we went through in January, there’s a feeling of reclaiming our city, reclaiming our flower,” she says. “This is our park; this is our thing.”
She’s also reminded of words from the festival’s founder. “Malak said when the tulips came up after the war, they brought color back to a world that was still grey. And I feel like there’s so much of that happening this year, (as) we’re coming out of this global pandemic,” she says. “I feel the flowers are more important than ever.”
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