The origins of the Ottawa Horticultural Society

The Ottawa Horticultural Society of today has been in continual existence since 1892, although the origins of having a horticultural organization in the city reach back to 1854.

Ottawa Horticultural Society 1854-1859

The roots of the OHS reach back to the time when the City of Ottawa was incorporated. The first OHS was organized during a meeting held on March 9, 1854 and chaired by Mayor Friel at the Town Hall. The Honourable Thomas McKay (1792-1855) was nominated as the first President. (He declined.) The Society was primarily involved in holding shows and it did so from its founding until 1859, when it appears that a declining number of exhibitors and volunteers to work on the shows led to the Society becoming dormant.

Royal Horticultural Society of Ottawa 1862-1866 (?)

The Royal Horticultural Society of Ottawa was organized in 1862 by members from the previous OHS, and functioned until at least 1866. Although this has not been confirmed, the Society may have merged with the Ottawa Agricultural Society for a few years.

Valley of Ottawa Horticultural Society 1871-1880 (?)

The Valley of Ottawa Horticultural Society was organized in 1871 by members from the previous Royal Horticultural Society. The Society functioned until at least 1880. Some members of this Society later served in the present Society.

The founding of the present Society: 1892

In the autumn of 1892 a group of leading citizens and senior civil servants met at the City Hall to plan the launch of a local Horticultural Society. Their purpose was to create a society that would give instruction in the growing of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and provide suitable conditions for exhibits of the produce of members gardens in due and proper season.

The inaugural meeting was on January 17, 1893, with “some thirty gentlemen present” to listen to a lecture on the newest and best horticulture techniques. Society fees were set at one dollar in 1893 and, despite the changes in currency value, were only raised to two dollars in 1966.

The first meetings of the Society were mainly instructional, showing members how to garden. For instance, in July 1893 members heard a lecture on strawberries, followed by a panel discussion. A lecture from 1901 discussed “The Gold-banded Lily of Japan”. Few of us grow it now, though it would be undoubtedly as beautiful today as it was in 1902.

The Society staged exhibits by well-known local amateur gardeners of the day like Mr. R. B. Whyte. At the turn of the 20th century Mr. Whyte owned a remarkable half-acre garden in Sandy Hill, where he grew Icelandic poppies, Oriental poppies, hemerocallis, columbine, and iris, as well as cultivating a fine wildflower garden. The Dominion Horticulturist for Canada, Dr. W. T. Macoun, was an active supporter as well as serving as President of the Society for one year. Dr. Macoun would bring new plants and display them for information to gardeners.

In 1897 Lord Aberdeen, then Governor General of Canada, took an active interest in the Society and became the first Honorary Patron. The tradition has lasted and many of our most prized trophies have been donated by the incumbent of Government House. The Madame Vanier Bowl, for instance, arouses determined competition among senior flower arrangers at our tulip show.

The Society began immediately to cultivate knowledge of horticulture in Ottawa. In 1893 it published a pamphlet that listed the best annuals, perennials, and vegetables for the Ottawa region. It published pamphlets describing how to grow flowers and vegetables; it distributed seeds and offered substantial prizes. By 1903 junior gardeners were receiving special attention. Geranium slips were given to the juniors with prizes for the best shaped plants and the most flowers. In later years one of our members, Jack Carr, would give radio talks at noon hour from an old station on Somerset Street. In 1916 the book “Ottawa, A City Of Gardens” was published for the society by R.B. Whyte.

The early members also aimed at the beautification of Ottawa and, working without a city Parks and Recreation Department, undertook many projects that would now be considered the responsibility of local government. One major project undertaken with the Parks Commission before the turn of the 20th century was the planning of plantings for the west bank of the Rideau canal. The canal was then nothing more than a ditch with a beaten tow-path along-side, as the masonry walls had not yet been built, except at the locks. Beautification of the canal banks was an important improvement for the city.

During the First World War the Society formed a Vacant Lot Association. It developed countless wartime gardens, provided seeds, plants, labour (if needed), and instructional lectures to demonstrate how to “Grow Food and Help Win the War”. After the war the Society re-focused on its beautification projects. In 1918 the gardens of the Protestant Hospital on Rideau Street were the first to be replanted. Next, the flower beds at the Plant Bath on Preston Street were developed.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s saw the Society assisting in the “Relief Gardens for the Unemployed”. Lands at Range Road and Mann Avenue, behind the Civic Hospital, and at Main Ave. and River Drive were divided into lots. Fostered by necessity, home gardens and public allotments achieved great importance.

Then came another War and the War Gardens. The OHS members procured public lands, paid for ploughing and tools, and provided “know-how” for what were known as “Victory Gardens”.

In the early 1950s public plantings were carried out to demonstrate the advisability of using good bulbs, seeds, plants, and the best cultural practices. The Society planted annuals at the “Good Companions” and constructed outstanding landscape displays at the Central Canada Exhibition. Later, Society members donated many hours to assist the Billings Estate to re-organize the flower beds and plan a restoration of their 1930 heritage gardens. The Society presented the first official street tree policy to Ottawa city politicians and did much to promote the adoption of the trillium as the flower emblem of Ontario.

As early as 1902 members began to take care of City Hall gardens, then located near the present National Arts Centre. In 1967 the Society landscaped and planted a special area of the City Hall grounds on Green Island. Annual plantings (such as the 1986 planting of 66 roses) and upkeep proceeded until 1990 when expansion and re-building of City Hall necessitated the salvaging of as much as practicable of the garden for distribution elsewhere.

OHS members have assisted in therapeutic plantings at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, Abbotsford House, and the Rehabilitation Centre. At the latter, raised outdoor gardens designed to be accessible to patients in wheelchairs are planted annually. Recent projects by the society include gardens at the Perley and Rideau Veterans Health Centre, Georges Vanier Catholic Elementary School, and the Hospice at May Court.

The Society has also held shows or competitions of flowers since its earliest years. The first Show was held in late May 1893 with exhibits and a talk on spring flowers. Early shows were held in St. Johns Church Hall, now long gone but formerly located south of the Connaught Building on MacKenzie Ave.

The Society had led a nomadic life for most of its years. During World War II we even had to turn to the generosity of the owner of the Capitol Theatre, which was on Bank St. at Queen, to find space in a city turned over to the war effort. The Capitol Theatre allowed us to keep our equipment on their stage and we held most of our flower shows in the rotunda of the theatre. The Murphy-Gamble store on Sparks Street was also the scene of some flower shows. Of particular note were the Early Spring Show, which featured an outstanding display of spring flowers from Government House, and the June Rose Show, which coincided with new summer fashions. We have now found a home at the Tom Brown Arena, where we hold our monthly meetings.

Through a century of growth and change, the Society has had one constant source of strength: its people. , for horticultural societies are not just shows and projects, they are people. They draw people together who are interested in growing better vegetables, in improving their lawns and beautifying their homes, as well as their city. The Society was built by people who cared about creating a better environment here in our city long before the phrase “sustainable development” was coined. The people of the Ottawa Horticultural Society – our members – have kept the Society young and growing for well over one hundred years.