Le Jardin Botanique: lush garden enhances Montreal's French appeal

FOR some people, frigid winter days are confining. But in this city on an island in the St. Lawrence River, a number of individuals have found something of a solution: They visit the nine greenhouses of The Montreal Botanical Garden (Le Jardin Botanique de Montr'eal). At this time of year, Montreal is cold and usually covered with snow. Outside the glassed-in gardens, a few cross-country skiers are likely to be sliding along the trails that crisscross the 180 acres of gardens and arboretum. But in the greenhouses it is warm -- even tropical or desertlike.

The botanical garden, founded by Brother Marie-Victorin in 1931, is owned by the City of Montreal. Only last year the city started charging $2 for adults and $1 for children (aged 4 to 18) to tour the greenhouses. The outside gardens, two dozen kinds plus the arboretum, are free.

The greenhouses range from a tropical jungle and economic plants (banana trees, coffee trees, cacao plants, etc.) to a fern house and arid regions (many plants most people would call cactuses are, I was told, actually euphorbia and have leaves at some stage), and collections of 145 types of orchids and 165 species of begonias.

These are gardens that can be enjoyed just for their beauty -- a rose garden, an alpinum, an informal ``flowery brook,'' formal gardens, bonsai and Penjing garden, and the arboretum with its 3,000 species and varieties of woody plants, grouped according to genus.

Montreal's botanical garden has the added value of educational impact as well as beauty. All the plants are labeled in French, English, and Latin. Many of the individual gardens offer some utility as well as pleasure. For example, there's a perennial garden, with some 95 percent of the plants available commercially in local nurseries.

The garden, said to offer the third-greatest collection of plants after the botantical gardens of London and Berlin, is just one reason to visit Montreal. Here are a few more:

This Canadian metropolis of 3 million people is the largest French-speaking city outside Paris. It really does have a French atmosphere. In the summer, sidewalk caf'es bustle with customers talking or watching passers-by. The signs are almost all in French -- by law. Enough people speak English (some 30 percent have English as their first language) that non-French-speakers are not likely to have serious trouble getting around. And those who want to try out their high school or college French are less likely to be treated with disdain than in Paris.

The food is good. One place I can recommend is Les Serres (The Greenhouse) in ``Old Montreal.'' With its hanging plants, ceiling fans, old-fashioned lamps, lace tablecloths and curtains, it was delightful -- and not too expensive.

A walk through Old Montreal, a historic waterfront section of the town, is fun. You can also ride in a horse-drawn carriage for $20. There are interesting shops and boutiques, including a few selling excellent handicrafts. There are old buildings, among them Notre-Dame Church, dedicated in 1929, and the Ch^ateau de Ramezay, home of the French king's viceroy in the city from 1703 to 1724, and now a museum.

Expo '67 has left the city with a large, uncrowded site for exhibitions and recreational facilities. During the summer the old fair buildings house various displays, restaurants, and boutiques. Also on this separate island (Sainte-H'el`ene) there are La Ronde, an amusement park with rides, games, and shows, and next to the old Expo pavilions, Les Floralies, a well-maintained international garden. Parking costs $4, or you can go over on the modern, rubber-tired subway.

For eager shoppers, Montreal offers the ``city underground.'' There are literally hundreds of interconnected stores under the downtown towers. When my family arrived here, it was pouring rain and the boutiques and restaurants -- all protected from the elements -- proved an ideal way to spend a few hours.

Practical information: Write Greater Montreal Convention and Tourism Bureau, Mart ``F,'' 1, Frontenac, Place Bonaventure, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H5A 1E6.

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