This spring, close to a million tulip bulbs will cover Ottawa in a sea of red, yellow, orange, pink, purple and white. The Canadian Tulip Festival (May 13-23) will celebrate its 70th anniversary, and this year’s celebration includes extended hours, new activities and unique exhibits that commemorate 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 hosting Princess Juliana and her young family in Ottawa between 1940 and 1945, and a gesture of gratitude for the fundamental role in the liberation of the Netherlands.
Princess Juliana donated an additional 20,500 bulbs the following year, and a heartfelt tradition was born. The colorful flowers served as a muse for 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 CEO of the festival in 2019, she wanted to re-root the event in heritage and horticulture. Celebrating the ties between Canada and the Netherlands is a priority for Riding, who describes the relationship between the two countries as “an international friendship like no other.”
This year’s festival features a beautiful display of oil-on-wood paintings by artist Bev Tosh along with Canadian Heritage details honoring the Dutch war brides who came to Canada. His stories are equal parts romance and nervous anticipation, and Tosh’s art celebrates his spirit and wit. He listens for the story of a bride who made her own wedding dress from her by recycling a very unexpected material.
Nearly a third of the festival’s million tulips bloom in Commissioners Park in downtown Ottawa. For the first time this year, the Canadian Tulip Festival will extend its hours beyond dusk and stay open until 11 pm “Borealis” and “El Suéter.”
However, the star of the new night programming is, without a doubt, the Blacklight Boardwalk. Sixteen long tulip pots will line the Dow’s Lake boardwalk next to Commissioners’ Park. Each pot will be illuminated with black light, demonstrating what the flowers would look like to bees, who see through the ultraviolet spectrum.
“When the pollen opens up from the flowers, it looks like a Jackson Pollock (painting), glowing everywhere, and that’s what pollinators see when they go out to do their job,” explains Riding, describing the display as both entertaining and educational. . .
Riding expects a terrific turnout this year and theorizes that locals will be especially eager to celebrate the beauty of Ottawa. “After everything we went through in January, there is a feeling of recovery of our city, recovery of our flower,” she says. “This is our park; this is our thing”.
He also remembers the words of the founder of the festival. “Malak said that when the tulips sprouted after the war, they brought color back to a world that was still grey. And I feel like there’s a lot of that happening this year, (as) we’re coming out of this global pandemic,” she says. “I feel like flowers are more important than ever.”
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