Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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The Flash of Blulbs

Prepare to be dazzled as the Canadian Tulip Festival turns 50

On a very ordinary spring morning, when the sun was flirting through fluffy clouds illuminating Ottawa's sea of blooms one minute, shading it the next, I bumped into a man who made me look at tulips through different eyes.

It was in May 1995, just after a ceremony in Ottawa's National Gallery commemorating the Netherlands' contribution to the city's springtime landscapes. Crushed shoulder to shoulder in the soaring atrium, the politicos and paparazzi had just heard how tulips had grown into an Ottawa tradition and a Canadian obsession since 1945, when Princess Juliana of the Netherlands sent the city 100,000 bulbs in appreciation of the safe haven the royal family received in Canada and of the role Canadian troops played in liberating her country.

After leaving the crowd, I crossed the park, walking backwards while looking through my camera, trying to find the perfect picture of the stunning gallery rising from a swirl of red and yellow tulips. Lost in concentration, I bumped into an elegant man, immaculately dressed in a pressed silk shirt and tie, standing with his camera and tripod.

"Am I in your spot?" he asked with a twinkle in his eyes. After apologising, I introduced myself, intending to step aside from this photographer whom I recognised as the esteemed Malak Karsh.

For love of the gaze
"Please, call me Malak," he said, as if he wasn't internationally known by that distinctive first name, famous for photographing the icons of Canadian culture. Whether or not average Canadians know his name, they know his work. Karsh's 1963 photo of logs floating on the Ottawa river below Parliament Hill, perhaps his most famous, appeared on the last Canadian one-dollar bill, on the reverse side of the portrait of Queen Elizabeth taken by his brother, the famed Yousuf Karsh.

Obviously, on this morning when the sun teased the camera, mercilessly flashing intermittent rays of light through rapidly floating clouds, Karsh, known for his patience, welcomed passing the time with a chat. He told me he never tired of photographing tulips or the national and natural sites around Parliament Hill. "Tulips always remind me of when I first came to Canada from Armenia and my brother took me for a drive around Ottawa to show me my new home," he said.

"Did you know that when Ottawa first received the gift of Dutch bulbs, Mackenzie King complained the tulips would spoil the gothic integrity of the Parliament Buildings? Never mind: the next spring King was pleased to see the little blossoms burst open from those long green stems. Did you ever see my 1953 photograph of the young girl watering tulips with a watering can in this very spot? That was little Margaret Sinclair. She became Mrs. Pierre Elliott Trudeau. You know, the Prime Minister's wife."

Karsh went on to say how he nudged the Ottawa Board of Trade to create a tulip festival in 1950, while he was too ill with tuberculosis to work. The festival was officially launched in 1953. Over time, the Netherlands' annual gift of 10,000 bulbs was supplemented by bulbs from other countries and the Tulip Festival, held each May, flourished to become the largest and most lavish in the world. It now attracts thousands of tourists to the region each year. In 1984, Ottawa honoured Karsh by naming a mauvey-red blossom after him.

By now, my time was running out. I had other places to visit. Yet Karsh remained steadfast in his patience. "Let me try your camera," he said. After fiddling with the lens, he photographed me, framed by the National Gallery. In turn, I snapped his picture, shook his hand and stepped back slowly, beaming from my lovely encounter with one of Canada's foremost artists, knowing I carried Karsh's gift of photography within the body of my Minolta.

Over the years, Karsh's love for photography didn't wane. Just two days before his death in 2001, he was photographing Parliament Hill in brilliant autumn hues, still building his legacy of Canadian images. An exhibition of his work, planned prior to his death, will be held at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (1 Rideau Canal; tel: 613-990-8257) in Ottawa from April 13 to June 13.

A plethora of petals
This year on its 50th anniversary, the Canadian Tulip Festival will celebrate the life and times of Malak Karsh by dedicating Tulipmania to his memory with a splash of brilliant exhibitions and events. From May 3 to 20, a million tulips will cover vast gardens running along the National Capital Region Tulip Route, along the Rideau Canal, through Ottawa and Gatineau.

For three weeks, tourists will have the opportunity to view imaginative installations of tulips designed and created by artists from across Canada. The Tulipmania Exhibition will run from May 10 to 20 at Major's Hill Park, the site of the festival's main activities and celebrations. Tulip Explosion, a new flower show at the Maison du Citoyen in Gatineau, will feature floral designs inspired by famous paintings as well as displays from the International Floral Gown Competition from May 3 to 6.

Serious gardeners can attend the first World Tulip Summit, where international tulip experts from countries such as the Netherlands, France, Japan, Turkey and Australia will participate in a three-day symposium. Budding florists will have the chance to meet the experts at the Tulip Encounter in Major's Hill Park or to get their hands dirty at one of the International Floral Workshops.


Beyond the blooms, the Capital Region will be filled with activities for all ages. Check the official Tulip Festival website ( for details of outdoor concerts, events and gala balls. Plan to visit the Artisans in the Park for unique, tulip-inspired handicrafts and the Community Tulip Garden, consisting of 260 one-and-a-half metre fibreglass tulips painted by local artists and groups. If you have kids in tow, don't miss the Family Zone featuring fun characters and activities (children under 12 are free). Follow the Tulip Route to Commissioners Park along Dows Lake, where you can indulge in authentic sweet or savoury Beaver Tails at the Tulip Café. If you can, join the throngs of festival goers at the Casino de Hull Parade of Lights on the evening of May 18 and the Flotilla Parade on the Rideau Canal on May 19. Or take the time to venture away from the crowds: hike or bike into the Gatineau Hills to visit the beautiful gardens and ruins of the Mackenzie King Estate. And don't forget to dip into the ByWard Market for souvenir bulbs to plant back home.

Whatever your plans for the Canadian Tulip Festival, take along a camera. Before you snap away, consider the advice Karsh gave me. "Every tulip, every tree, every building has a personality of its own. Take your time. Be patient. Wait to capture that personality in its best light and you will have an image to treasure."

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