A celebration of folklore and floral art in Canada

Giant topiaries and gardens welcome visitors to Montreal.

Call it storytelling with flowers. The legends of Easter Island, the phoenix, how mankind tamed fire, and dozens of other tales and myths are "narrated" by way of 70 larger-than-life-size gardens.

On what other North American island can you come face to face with a frolicking seal near a green-striped "Bengal" tiger and watch giants dozing on the side of a volcano not far from the stained-glass windows of a cathedral?

No, we're not talking about some new theme park. The island is Montreal - which most people forget is surrounded by water. And the attraction is Mosaïcultures International, which combines unusual topiaries and colorful gardens with the myths and legends of more than 30 nations.

Imagine the creativity of Disney combined with the horticultural know-how of a top-notch botanical garden and the cultural outreach of the Smithsonian Institution. The result is a living work of art - one that Montreal has spent three years perfecting.

But the art itself goes back much further. In the 16th and 17th centuries, two-dimensional mosaic gardens were common, especially in Europe. Small shrubs, flowers, and herbs were combined in flower beds to create intricate patterns - a sort of plant embroidery.

Then came large shrubs painstakingly pruned into green "sculptures." Called topiaries, they are still popular in parts of the world.

But in the last decades of the 20th century, a new category of topiary evolved - wire frames stuffed with peat moss and covered with ivy and other green-leaved plants.

Gradually, though, annual flowers and ornamental grasses were tucked here and there among the green to produce artistic effects - deep blue eyes for a topiary owl or a yellow harness for a camel.

In Montreal the multicolored topiaries aren't just plopped wherever there's room for them. Instead, most are standing in the midst of elaborate flower gardens. And the two floral elements - topiary and 3-D pattern - have been combined to tell a myth or legend associated with the country that designed the miniature garden.

Sometimes there's even a third element. Music serenades visitors to several different gardens, including those who walk through the "Inspiring Cathedrals" (photo above).

Quebec's entry, the legend of Mother Earth (photo at left), incorporates water with the topiary figure. (A part of this elaborate plant sculpture that you can't see in the photo is the "geese" on the pond in front of the figure's outstretched arms. Each looks as though it's ready to rise into the air.)

Mosaïcultures is located at the mouth of the Lachine Canal, across from the port of Old Montreal. Count on spending about three hours there (longer if you dally to read all the signs that explain the legends and myths). Two-hour guided tours are available for $5.

Some of my favorites: Boston's entry - Moby Dick - and all eight of the French gardens, which incorporate a new topiary technique. China's floral Great Wall was appealing, too. But others traveling with me had different opinions; each of the gardens is charming in its own way, we finally decided.

It was an enjoyable way to spend a half day, and we might have stayed longer except that the Montreal Botanical Garden beckoned our group of flower lovers. It's the second largest botanical garden in the world, measured in numbers of different plant species. (First is England's famed Kew Gardens.)

After the winning entries have been chosen and Mosaïcultures ends Oct. 6, the flower-covered figures will be taken down.

It seems a sad end for such beauty, but the plants aren't winter-hardy and the forms are much too tall to fit into greenhouses.

But that won't be the end of this venture. In 2006, Mosaïcultures International - still under the direction of the Montreal experts - will sprout an entirely new look in Singapore. And in 2009, it will pop up in Boston, the only US city to enter the competition this year.

For more information, see www.mosaiculture.ca, phone toll-free 888-868-9999, or e-mail info@ mosaiculture.ca.

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