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Exploring the Lovely UBC Botanical Garden in Vancouver

Linda Crampton is a writer who lives in Greater Vancouver. She enjoys walking and likes to take photographs of her discoveries.

A poppy in the botanical garden

A poppy in the botanical garden

A Unique Place to Explore

The UBC Botanical Garden in Vancouver is a very interesting place for plant lovers. It's not a typical botanical garden consisting of neat flowerbeds and carefully manicured lawns. Instead, it contains multiple habitats with different features. It does contain flowers and a lawn, but it also has forested areas and specialized mini gardens. The UBC garden displays a wide variety of plants. It's an enjoyable and educational place to explore. It's also an important research area for botanists.

The garden is owned and run by the University of British Columbia but is open to the general public. A highlight of a visit for some people is the Greenheart TreeWalk. This construction allows people to travel along suspended walkways in the forest canopy. The journey gives a walker a new perspective on nature.

I enjoy walking, nature study, and photography, so I always love visiting public gardens. I find the varied habitats at the UBC garden especially appealing. Unless otherwise noted, all of the photos in this article were taken by me.

Plants next to the entrance of the garden

Plants next to the entrance of the garden

UBC is the oldest university in British Columbia. The botanical garden was established in 1916. It's located on both sides of Marine Drive in the western part of the city of Vancouver. A tunnel under the road allows pedestrians to travel from one part of the garden to the other.

A confident squirrel seen by the ticket booth and shop at the entrance to the garden

A confident squirrel seen by the ticket booth and shop at the entrance to the garden

The David C. Lam Asian Garden

The David C. Lam Asian Garden is the first area seen by visitors after they enter the botanical garden. David Lam was a businessman, a philanthropist, and a Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. The Lieutenant Governor represents the queen in the province. Lam was widely respected. He died in 2010.

The garden named in Lam's honour contains an interesting mixture of local trees and Asian plants. On my first visit, I was quite surprised to see typical British Columbian trees beside the trail and then notice plants with exotic leaves, stems, flowers, or fruits mixed in with them.

At the end of the Asian Garden is the Greenheart TreeWalk. The suspended walkway is 308 metres long and at its highest point is located 23 metres above the ground. It travels through the canopy of a coastal rainforest habitat. I describe the walk in more detail below.

The Significance of the Moon Gate

Before (or after) reaching the tree walk, visitors can travel through the Moon Gate and the adjoining tunnel to reach the section of the garden located on the other side of Marine Drive. This section is known as the North Garden and contains flowers, succulents, trees, and other interesting sights.

A moon gate is a circular opening in a wall that allows people to pass from one area to another. It has symbolic meaning in Chinese culture, though the meaning varies. One idea is that passing through the gate represents a renewal of some kind. The gate is often red, which is the colour of good luck. The UBC one isn’t red, but it has a pavilion containing red posts around it, as can be briefly seen in the video below.

A suspended walkway in the tree canopy

A suspended walkway in the tree canopy

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The Greenheart TreeWalk

The tree walk was built by a company called Greenheart. No nails or bolts were used to attach the walkway to trees. Instead, a specialized cable tension system was used to hang the construction from the trees. Part of this system can be seen in the photo below. It seems to be very effective. I've never heard of a problem with the tree walk.

The walkway is constructed in segments with stable platforms in-between the segments. People need to move in single file along the walkway but can stand beside each other at the platforms. They can travel along the walk on their own or in a group during a guided tour.

The walkway tilts from side to side as a person moves along it. Some people may find this fun while others may not like the sensation of being unstable while being at a considerable height above the ground. I'm one of the latter group of people. I'm glad that I've walked through the tree canopy at least once, though. The view from the platforms was impressive and provided the opportunity for some great photos. The second video below gives a good idea of what it's like to travel along the walkway.

Part of the suspensory mechanism of a walkway, as viewed from a multilevel platform

Part of the suspensory mechanism of a walkway, as viewed from a multilevel platform

Over the past 100 years, the mission of UBC Botanical Garden has broadened to include education, research, conservation, community outreach, and public display of temperate plants from around the world.

— UBC Botanical Garden website

The Great Lawn and the Carolinian Forest

Soon after leaving the tunnel between the two sections of the garden, a visitor will see the Great Lawn. The lawn and the nearby flowers and shrubs resemble a typical botanical garden. The flowers in the herbaceous border beside the lawn are colourful and attractive. The border is limited to one location, however, and doesn't travel around the lawn.

Next to the Great Lawn is an area known as the "Carolinian Forest". In Canada, this term refers to a distinctive and attractive group of deciduous trees that grow in eastern North America. The trees grow well in the botanical garden. The garden's goal is to create an arboretum containing groves of trees and herbaceous plants from the east coast of the continent.

Looking at the Great Lawn from the Carolinian Forest

Looking at the Great Lawn from the Carolinian Forest

The E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden

The alpine garden and the nearby cactus and succulent display give visitors another chance to see plants that don't normally grow in Vancouver. The alpine garden consists of beds containing high altitude plants from different continents. The substrate, spacing, and—as much as possible—the microenvironments of the plants are carefully controlled to help them survive.

Near the alpine garden is a frame that contains a cactus display. The succulents are grown in special troughs next to the cactus frame. The troughs look natural but are actually made of an artificial mixture of materials. The troughs allows proper drainage during Vancouver's wet winters, allowing the succulents to survive.

The total collection of approximately 120,000 accessioned plants represents some 6,000 taxa and includes significant collections of Magnolia, Acer (maples), Sorbus (mountain ash), Styracaceae (storax family), Rhododendron and climbing plants.

— UBC Botanical Garden website

Harold and Frances Holt Physic Garden

"Physic garden" is an old name for a garden containing medicinal plants that was used to educate physicians and apothecaries. The Harold and Frances Holt Physic Garden is enclosed by a hedge made of yew. Yew is poisonous and was traditionally planted in a physic garden. Its presence was a warning sign that other poisonous plants were located in the garden. Like pharmaceutical medicines, some natural medicines have the potential to harm instead of help if used incorrectly.

The physic garden consists of twelve concentric beds bordered by bricks and is most attractive during the spring, summer, and early fall. The bronze sundial is interesting at any time of year. It bears engraved depictions of items related to natural medicine.

An interesting sign in the garden describes the doctrine of signatures. The sign is shown in the photo sequence above. The doctrine claims that God has given medicinal plants a feature that indicates their benefit for an illness. For example, as the sign says, the leaves of the lungwort have white spots. This reminded doctors of the appearance of a diseased lung and indicated to them that the leaves were a suitable treatment for lung disease.

It's very important to note that today there are conflicting reports about the safety of lungwort. Plants shouldn't be eaten unless their safety has been confirmed by experts and unless there is no doubt about their identification.

The “Doctrine of Signatures” is a belief that all plants have a divine mark of their curative power. For example, yellow plants, like the flowers of goldenrod, Solidago virgaurea, were presumed to yield a cure for jaundice.

— UBC Botanical Garden Website

The Food and BC Rainforest Gardens

The Food Garden grows vegetables and fruits, including unusual or exotic types as well as more common varieties. Organic techniques are used to produce the food, which is given to those in need. A major goal of the garden is to educate the public about food production.

The BC Rainforest Garden contains typical coastal rainforest trees. It also contains a pond and boggy areas that can be traversed via stepping stones. The garden attracts birds, insects, and even frogs.

There are other interesting sights to see in the UBC Botanical Garden. These include the Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland Garden, the Arbour Garden, the Cattail Marsh, the Walk in the Woods Trail, and additional areas. Visiting everything in the UBC garden takes time but is very enjoyable, especially in summer. The garden has a number of facilities that can be rented as well as viewed, including an amphitheatre and the Garden Pavilion. These constructions are located near the lawn.

The garden's website provides a downloadable map so that people can plan their exploration in advance. A link to the website is provided in the "Resources" section below.

The garden has a library that contains an extensive collection of reference works. It's a useful place for researchers. The public can explore the Reading Room section of the library but can't borrow items. The garden holds frequent workshops that may be of interest to local people.

Admission to the UBC Botanical Garden

The garden is open every day throughout the year, with the exception of statutory holidays during the winter. The following information is a general guide. Admission prices may change, and sometimes special procedures are in place.

Admission from April 1st to October 31st generally costs around $10 for adults. Concession rates apply for people in various categories, such as those aged 65 or older. The adult admission price does a major jump if a person wants to travel along the tree walk. The tree walk is open from April 1st to October 31st and is closed during winter. Admission to the garden during the winter is by donation.

From November to March, there are fewer plants to see in the garden, although a visit can still be enjoyable. Evergreen plants are still present, but less colour is visible outside of the growing season. That being said, Vancouver generally has mild winters, which allows some plants to bloom. Some of the plants that are kept in frames are also able to flower in winter. The garden contains a special area for the season—the Winter Garden—that contains both colour and fragrance in the colder months.

It's important to look at the garden's website before a visit. Many ticket packages are available. People may need some time to choose the best one. In addition, admission costs and open hours may change. In certain situations, specific policies may be in effect for visitors, including ones related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking upwards under a tree always produces an interesting view.

Looking upwards under a tree always produces an interesting view.

How to Reach the Garden by Public Transit

In addition to driving to the botanical garden, a visitor has the option of taking a bus. The #49 bus stops at the corner of 16th Avenue and SW Marine Drive. From here, it's about a ten minute walk to the garden entrance.

It's also possible to walk to the garden from UBC, which is located nearby. The university campus is big, however. In addition, it's surrounded by an area known as the UBC Endowment Lands, creating a very large site. A walk to the botanical garden may take a considerable amount of time, depending on the starting point. The C20 shuttle bus may prove useful in this situation. It starts at the UBC bus loop and stops at Stadium Road very close to the garden entrance.

The organization that runs Vancouver's public transit system is known as TransLink. The TransLink website has information about bus routes and timetables in the Greater Vancouver region and includes data for the #49 and C20 buses.

Things for Visitors to Consider

A complete exploration of the UBC Botanical Garden takes hours. It might be a good idea to take a snack and water on the journey. It's important to dress for the weather and to bring rain or sun protection if necessary. Good walking shoes are also important. The garden contains three washrooms—one at the shop and garden centre located at the entrance to the garden, one in the Garden Pavilion, and one by the exit of the tree walk.

Some of the garden is accessible to wheelchairs, but not all of it. Some trails are paved while others are made of wood chip or gravel. In addition, some of the trails are irregularly graded.

There are special requirements for those planning to go on the tree walk. These requirements include no flip-flops, sandals, or high heels, the ability to keep both hands free in order to hold on to the guide ropes, and a backpack or other carrier for young children instead of a stroller.

The preparation for a trip to the garden is very worthwhile. An interesting mix of nature and cultivation awaits the visitor. It would be an excellent idea to carry a camera of some kind during the visit, since there are many lovely sights in the garden. The exploration of the area will probably be both fun and educational.


  • The UBC Botanical Garden website has information about current admission costs and open hours.
  • The TransLink website is useful for someone who wants to travel to the garden by public transit. The site contains a trip planner to help people reach their destination.

© 2016 Linda Crampton

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