After 65 years, Canadian Tulip Festival still a blooming attraction

Iconic celebration of Dutch gift to Canada welcomes back former director with new events to mark historic anniversary
Tuplips
The 65th edition of the Canadian Tulip Festival runs from May 12-22 at several venues across the city. (Photo courtesy of the Canadian Tulip Festival)

Twelve years after he last headed up the Canadian Tulip Festival, Michel Gauthier is back at the helm – with what he says is an even deeper understanding of the event’s importance to Ottawa.

“What I realized is that in fact the Canadian Tulip Festival is probably one of Canada’s biggest garden tourism attractions,” says the garden festival veteran, who went on to organize other festivals and become executive director of the Canadian Garden Council, which manages industry events across the country. “I said, ‘You know what? Maybe it’s time that I come back.’ Here I am.”

Mr. Gauthier, whose first go-round as festival director lasted from 1992 to 2005, chose a particularly momentous year to make his comeback. This marks the 65th edition of an event that was first held in 1953, an anniversary that neatly coincides with Canada’s 150th birthday.

“Even conventions say, ‘Hey, let’s have our meeting in Ottawa for the Tulip Festival.’ It’s that type of impact that this event has generated.”

The Canadian Tulip Festival draws 650,000 visitors a year, Mr. Gauthier says, making it the country’s second-biggest garden tourism attraction after Victoria’s Butchart Gardens. Ottawa’s hotel occupancy rate in the month of May is the highest of any major Canadian city, he adds, thanks in large part to the annual celebration that was first organized by famed photographer Malak Karsh and the Ottawa Board of Trade.

“For 65 years, this tulip has been a symbol of Ottawa, the capital,” Mr. Gauthier says, noting the festival now attracts tourists from as far away as China and Japan, who collectively pump more than $80 million into the city’s economy. “Even conventions say, ‘Hey, let’s have our meeting in Ottawa for the Tulip Festival.’ It’s that type of impact that this event has generated. This is a true flagship for Canada when it comes to garden tourism.”

Art installations

This year’s event, which runs from May 12 to 22, will be spread out at several venues. The signature attraction will be a “Garden Promenade” featuring millions of tulips stretching from Rideau Hall to the Central Experimental Farm to Parliament Hill.

“The capital doesn’t have that (one) big garden, but we have a lot of beautiful gardens, thanks to the National Capital Commission and the efforts of others,” Mr. Gauthier notes.

Festival organizers are also working with the ByWard Market BIA to create a series of art installations in the Market. The centrepiece will be a stylized tulip “wrap” around the city-owned parking garage on Clarence Street by American pop artist BeX, who also designed the festival’s “One Tulip One Canada” flag.

Other attractions will include a collection of more than 250,000 tulips at Commissioners Park near Dow’s Lake and an exhibition of photographs from Mr. Karsh at Lansdowne Park.

Originally created to celebrate the Dutch royal family’s gift of 100,000 tulips to Ottawa as a thank-you for sheltering Princess Juliana and her three daughters during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, the Canadian Tulip Festival has come to represent our country’s values of tolerance and respect for others, Mr. Gauthier says.

“When you look at Ottawa, what are the symbols of Ottawa? Between the Peace Tower and the Rideau Canal and the tulips, those are great symbols of our capital.”

A festival to remember

Some of the major events taking place at the Lansdowne Park Tulip Gallery, one of the main venues for the 65th Canadian Tulip Festival:

  • Tulip Reflection, featuring 65 tulip bouquets by local floral designers;

  • Homage to Malak Karsh, a photographic exhibition;

  • Tulip Art Gallery, 65 works of art in multiple mediums by Canadian artists;

  • The Friendship Village, featuring some of the Festival’s tulip friendship countries;

  • Vintage Military Displays, a tribute to our veterans;

  • The Friendship Stage, presenting varied music and entertainment including children’s performers and representative acts from the Festival’s Tulip Friendship countries;

  • Art and floral workshops presented by experts;

  • Glebe Tulip Plaza, organized in collaboration with the Glebe BIA providing animation, pageantry and merchant programs along Bank Street and throughout Lansdowne Park;

  • Opening night tribute to festival’s founders (May 12)

  • Mother’s Day dutch brunch for Bruyère Foundation (May 14)

  • International friendship floral celebration (May 18)

  • Swing dance night (May 19)

  • 65th anniversary Tulipmania fireworks (May 21)