Written and photographed by Sandra Ozkur
Got the winter blues? Had enough of the cold and grey? Longing for a tropical getaway? It doesn’t have to involve an airplane ride or a lot of money. You can have a touch of the tropics right here in Niagara. Under glass ceilings you will find rainforests, tropical birds, butterflies, exotic plants, rare orchids and wildlife. Whether you are a visitor or a local resident, you only have to take a short trip to the Butterfly Conservatory, the Floral Showhouse, or Bird Kingdom to find yourself in the midst of a tropical paradise.
The Floral Showhouse
This is one of the oldest conservatories in Canada and is maintained by the Niagara Parks Commission. The original greenhouse was erected in 1894 to provide ornamental plants and shrubs for the parklands along the Niagara River. In the summer, these spectacular gardens and floral displays help showcase the natural beauty of the waterfalls. As the park expanded through the years, more greenhouses were needed and in 1897 the first public conservatory was erected to propagate and display ornamental plants. In 1945, more greenhouses were built at the current location and in 1980, a 40-foot glass-domed visitors reception area was added to permit the growing of full sized tropical palms and other exotic plants for the enjoyment of visitors to the Falls.
As you enter the front door, you are enveloped in the moist air, lush sights and exotic sounds of a tropical rainforest. Water trickles into a pond where fish and turtles hide among the rocks. Almost 1000 unique species of tropical plants and succulents are displayed here throughout the year. Wayne Hoeschle, a tropical specialist, is constantly changing the floral display as the plants come into bloom. He fondly cares for over 400 varieties of orchids and propagates many other species of rare plants.
As I tour the greenhouse, he points out some of the more unusual species, such as the carnivorous Pitcher Plant which produces a leaf extension shaped like a pitcher that traps insects on which it feeds. The rare wollemia nobilis originates in Australia and its lineage traces back to the Dinosaur Age. One of the most interesting plants is the Vanilla Orchid Vine with long tentacles that reach throughout the gardens. The Pineapple Plant has produced a fruit just about ready for picking. As you wander through the greenhouses don’t forget to look up—to see the birds that make their homes in the tree canopy. Live tropical songbirds dart in and out of the plants and their calls echo throughout the conservatory. One of the most beautiful birds is the Long-tailed Paradise Whyda with its golden breast and graceful tail feathers. If you look closely you can see a Basket Weaver nest hanging from a branch.
The conservatory staff are very proud of their forest family, but their favorite child is the rare and exotic Amorphophallus titanum, which can grow up to 25 feet tall and produces a blossom nearly 8 feet high! In 2012 the country watched in awe as this rare event was broadcast on national television. There are generally 2-3 years between blooms, this year everyone is on the lookout for signs of an emerging bud so that the world might once again witness this rare event.
Throughout the year, the Floral Showhouse features eight different themed plant exhibitions. The Spring Show starts in January and runs until Easter. It features a variety of potted spring flowers guaranteed to cure your winter blues.
Located along the Niagara River, the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens are easy to reach by WEGO bus or car. Throughout the summer, acres of outdoor gardens are beautifully manicured for the enjoyment of all. But come fall, the floral beds are put to rest to be covered under a blanket of snow. However, not all is dormant in the dead of winter— The Butterfly Conservatory, situated in the heart of the gardens, offers a year round respite from the cold. The Conservatory draws visitors, like butterflies to nectar, to bask in the warmth and beauty of this indoor tropical paradise. Visitors and locals are privileged to be able to slip into summer and enjoy the warmth and sunshine among thousands of tropical butterflies and flowering plants without ever leaving Canada
At the Butterfly Conservatory, a rainforest has literally been recreated under glass. The entire display is designed to replicate the natural habitat of a rainforest as realistically as possible. Real quarry stone is used for the walkways and waterfall in order to provide a natural environment for over 50 species of butterflies. The plants are deliberately chosen to help the butterflies thrive. Great care is taken to provide the proper habitat that the creatures need to live. Nectar feeding butterflies, such as the Rice Paper, Zebra, and Julia Butterflies, require constant supplies of flowering plants as a source of nourishment. In order to satisfy the needs of fruit feeding butterflies such as the Blue Morpho, Crackers and Owl Butterflies, fruit stations loaded with oranges, bananas and other tropical fruits are strategically placed for your viewing throughout the conservatory.
Caretakers educated in horticulture and entomology are on site to oversee the ecosystem and professionally trained staff put in a lot of work in behind the scenes to make sure that everything is monitored, catalogued and well cared for. The staff keeps busy rearing butterflies, growing plant materials for nectar and propagating new plants. New shipments of butterfly chrysalises are received weekly to replenish the butterfly population, as butterflies have a life span of only 2-3 weeks. Once a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, it is set free into the conservatory where it is free to play among the foliage. No butterflies are sourced from the wild. The Canadian government strictly monitors the importation of the butterflies and all are purchased from reputable farms in countries that use sustainable practices.
Both children and adults are amazed to see the butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in the butterfly incubators. Many school groups come through the Conservatory on educational field trips to marvel at this wonder of nature. Children are delighted to watch these colourful creatures chase each other through the leaves and are in awe if they are lucky enough to have a 6-inch giant blue Owl Butterfly land on their shoulders. Curator/Manager Cheryl Tyndall explains, “People have many reasons for visiting the Butterfly Conservatory- some people return year after year to celebrate an occasion, bring their children or just sit and read a book and enjoy the tropical getaway for a couple of hours. “
Special programing is offered throughout the year, which includes interactive displays, videos and wild animal exhibits, which this spring will feature a program called Swamp Creatures. Starting February 8th and running until Mother’s Day, there will be incredible live demonstrations with some exciting creatures from the world’s swamps and wetlands. Come to see the Stink Pot Turtle, Caiman, a Green Anaconda or perhaps a Pink Salmon Bird Eating Tarantula! This exhibit is included with regular admission.
Educational events are also scheduled throughout the year for public and private groups. Monarch Teachers Network workshops are held annually, and in the fall, the Majestic Monarchs event is offered to visitors who come out to learn about the Monarch Butterfly migration. Academic tours of the production facility can also be arranged by special request (fees apply). The facility is available for rental in the afterhours for weddings and special occasions.
For details about events, tours, fees and hours of operation of the Floral Showhouse and the Butterfly Conservatory, check their web site at www.niagaraparks.com
As blustery Canadian winds blow the snow and cold in my face, I approach the door to the world’s largest indoor, free flying Aviary, with anticipation of my tropical getaway within. Within minutes I am greeted by the friendly staff and assigned to Hayley, senior bird keeper and my very enthusiastic tour guide. She gives me a quick tour of the historical museum, displaying interesting historical photos and local artifacts from the early years of Niagara Falls.
We proceed to the first Encounter Room where visitors can get up close and personal with several species of birds and reptiles. Hayley fondly picks up her friend, an African Tortoise, and lets me feel his leathery shell and scaly legs. A Kookaburra knows her well and responds to her request for a litany of songs. The Toucan looks on from his branch with his fruit-loop colored bill, while a couple of Boa Constrictors and a Python curl up in their cages. A very large Iguana suns himself on the window ledge and rolls his eyes at me as we pass by. Hayley says the live interaction between animal and human creates an appreciation for these magnificent creatures and encourages a desire to protect and preserve them in their natural habitats. As with the Butterfly Conservatory, no animals in the collection are sourced from the wild; they are all acquired through licensed breeders, zookeepers or private donations.
Each collection is sectioned off to allow for proper habitat maintenance. The Small Bird Sanctuary houses over 40 species of songbirds, which show off their talents as we pass through. I was fascinated watching the African Village Weaver tie knots out of grass to skillfully weave a nest! Continuing on, we arrive at the nocturnal section where the lights are kept low in order to simulate nighttime when the animals become most active. There is an array of creatures to see, a variety of night owls, bats, spiders and snakes. Children love to spend time at the archeological dig site where they can sift through sand to uncover buried treasures. Stick around to experience the daily bat feedings. It is a delight to watch their acrobatics as they struggle to chew their food while hanging upside down!
Next, for the grand finale, we enter the Main Aviary. Hundred of birds fly freely in fifty thousand square feet of open space. The area is filled with tropical trees, plants and birds displayed against the backdrop of a 40-foot waterfall. The birds flit among the trees and perch upon the ledges and branches of this lost kingdom. Some of the birds are very comfortable with humans; a large African Pied Crow landed near my arm to check out the shiny lens of my camera. It was thrilling to be able to get so close to the birds— I made friends with a Victoria Crowned Pigeon from New Zealand, who followed me up and down the paths of the Aviary. The Scarlet Ibis are breathtaking as they swoop high overhead to land on the ledge of the waterfall.
The most popular birds are the brightly coloured Lorikeets, which will land all over you if you hold up a cup of nectar. Children squeal with delight as these friendly birds sit on their heads and shoulders. As you wind your way slowly through the aviary, be sure to pause at the little café inside at the authentic Javanese teahouse. This rare example of an intricately carved teak teahouse from Indonesia is nothing less than a work of art.
Bird Kingdom is open year round and offers private tours, birthday parties, wedding facilities and outreach programs for the community. With loads of parking and a great view of the American Falls, there is no better place to escape a Canadian winter right here at home.