Racking Up the Famous Flower Count

AS everyone knows, Victoria, British Columbia, has the best climate in Canada. On an island off Canada's western shore, it is warm and dry in the summer and dewy-soft the rest of the year. And there's no winter. Nothing to speak of, anyway, just a hint of frost in January for the good of the tulips and lilac bushes. So, while the rest of the country is shoveling out driveways, Victorians are out in the potting shed, planting, pruning, and getting their city ready for yet another season of glorious bloom.

Until last year, that is. Last year for some reason winter decided to drop in for a spell. It hadn't happened before in living memory. And such a bizarre twist in the normal course of affairs had the rather amusing effect of mixing just a little too much whimsy into Victorian life, making everybody behave as if they had just stepped out of a Hallmark card.

First of all, there was that business with the fountains. Nobody thought to turn them off. Why should anyone want to turn the fountains off? They had never bothered anybody, frolicking about as they did in parks and patios year after year, providing that sense of casual elegance for which the city is so famous.

But with a few degrees of frost and a high wind those fountains metamorphosed overnight into something none of us had ever seen before.

Take that modest little waterspout on the corner of Douglas and Humboldt. It became the Snow Queen's Palace, all ice and glinting crystal. And the one on the duck lagoon became Neptune, all flying fish and fork prongs. The fountain on the legislature lawn turned into a rather dandified Napoleon, puffed up and strutting with a billowing cape and a magnificent plume of ice spewing out of its bicorn hat.

And then there was the fun of watching how people dressed for the cold. Transplanted Easterners were all right. They had parkas and boots and could remember the little bits about not touching metal with bare hands or leaving ears exposed. They went about their daily affairs as though nothing at all were amiss.

But hometowners treated the whole thing with a bit more panache. They improvised outrageously. They came to work in sailing gear and deck boots, with garden gloves and woolen socks pulled over their hands. They draped themselves in sheepskin and fake fur. They tried skiing on the sidewalks and skating on the cornfields. In no time at all, Victoria resembled a Grandma Moses painting, all fun and frosted gingerbread with stick figures flying about everywhere.

And of course there was the Flower Count. For anyone not acquainted with Victoria and its festivals, the Flower Count is a bit of nonsense dreamed up by local authorities to plump up the sagging winter economy.

Someone picks a week in February and everybody goes tripping through gardens and graveyards counting crocuses and cherry blossoms and telephoning the results down to the Flower Count tallying center. Each night the totals are televised across the nation in the hope that people in snowbound cities will rush down to their travel agents and immediately book a ticket for balmy Victoria.

It's all done tongue-in-cheek, of course, but some of the local citizenry feel it lacks credibility. After all, how do you verify the actual number of blossoms on a fully loaded cherry tree? In 1987 over 350 million blossoms were recorded, which really makes you wonder.

Well, last year Flower Count Week just happened to fall right in the middle of the cold snap.

Nobody seemed terribly concerned at first. After all, winter was never known to linger long in Victoria. And so the organizers went ahead confidently, setting up their telephone headquarters in a shopping mall and installing a huge ``flowermometer'' on the concourse to give a feeling of authenticity.

Unfortunately, things didn't quite go as planned. The mercury had sunk to minus 4 degrees C. (24 degrees F.), and few green things were even alive, much less in bloom. Even the potted primroses hastily set out along the official Flower Count walkway had long since given up the ghost.

By Monday evening a pall of gloom hung over the shopping mall. The red ink in the flowermometer was still sitting at the bottom of the bulb and the telephones were silent in their cradles and it was obvious to everyone that nothing was going to change. Did anyone have any ideas?

And that was when the lowly pussy willow came into its own. Now for many people the pussy willow is a symbol of spring, but in Victoria it often goes unnoticed, so outstripped is it by the clumps of crocuses and daffodils that normally brighten the lawns and boulevards.

So when a group of elementary school students, responding to appeals for help, fanned out across the frozen countryside and discovered dozens of soft and fuzzy pussy willows poking up through the pumpkin patches, could they be blamed for noting each one down as a flower?

In all, over 15 million pussy willows were recorded before a dump of snowfall one afternoon canceled the rest of the week's festivities.

Surprisingly enough, there was no sadness around. Everyone was well pleased with the way things turned out, despite the low numbers.

Apparently the idea of Victorians picking daisies in the snow so fired the imaginations of the media that television coverage far exceeded anything ever experienced before, which just goes to show that making a fool of yourself in front of the cameras sometimes has its rewards.

But I don't think the hotel occupancy rate really increased very much in the following weeks. Which makes you wonder what the whole thing was for, doesn't it?

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