Our gardens and our environment deaden or brighten our souls.
-Annual report of the Horticultural Societies, Department of Agriculture, 1908.
In 1955 Elsinor Burns, member of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) building committee and an executive member of the Garden Club of Toronto (GCT), had the idea of creating a fragrant garden outside of CNIB's headquarters to be enjoyed by the blind. She was joined by Lois Wilson, Gardening Editor for Chatelaine Magazine, who was also a member of the GCT, in spearheading the project. The club voted to raise $400 ($3,684.51 in 2017) for the project. Astonishingly, they raised $21,000 ($193,436.82 in 2017). A committee was created consisting of five GCT members, as well as five blind members of the CNIB, in order to create a beautiful, but equally important, functional garden that could be enjoyed by those who were sight impaired.
The garden, located on Bayview Avenue, was "set on a gently rising hilltop in the geographical centre of Toronto, circled by the buildings of the National and Ontario headquarters of the Institute, it [was] an acre of gardens planted with fragrant flowers, scented herbs, shrubs and trees, blooming from earliest spring till frost."
More than one hundred types of plants made up the plant list. "Most [were] fragrant by wafting their perfume far on the wind as lilacs and apple blossoms do, or by having their leaves bruised as with mint and lavender. Others [were] chosen for their sweet, close-up scent like carnations and sweet William." Several plants were included because of their interesting tactile qualities like, woolly rabbits' ear and furry old man's beard. Pine trees were chosen for making a "lovely sound in the wind," while other plants were picked because they encouraged the nesting of songbirds. "Whispering aspens rustle[d] in the wind; petunias and geraniums abound in the raised beds, their petals ready for the seeing hands of the sightless; such plants as artemisia feel like long-piled rugs; and the scent of thyme, mint and other herbs linger[ed] in the air."
Many people helped put this project together. Scientists came to analyze the soil. Professors of botany suggested fragrant plants to include in the garden space. Landscape architects worked extensively with the blind to ensure that the garden was laid out in a manner that could be fully enjoyed by the latter. More than an acre of the garden was framed around its outside edge by a rectangular exercise walk that was 700' wide. The asphalt surface of the walkway changed to wood slats as it approached the corners as a way of indicating to the walker that it was time to turn around. In 1957 a blind resident of the CNIB stated, "all we residents at Clarkwood [residence of CNIB] take a daily walk around the garden just to see what has happened there each day. The blind need something to hang onto physically, such as a cane or an arm of a friend, and we have found the garden something to hang on to in a different sense."
Completed in 1956, the garden was enjoyed by the nearly one thousand blind and partially sighted people living, working or visiting the centre every day. It was the first garden of its kind built in Canada, and one that came to be recognized throughout the rest of the world. The GCT copied their plant lists for others who were interested in creating a garden for the blind.Their records indicate that they sent their lists to Australia, South Africa, Chile, Brazil, the United States, and other Canadian cities. Art Drysdale, a well-known Canadian horticulturist, mentioned that in 1974 the park director in Budapest, Hungary showed him their fragrant garden . Their department had contacted people in Toronto because "the best such garden is there." He also mentioned a similar experience occurring in New Zealand in 1983.
In 2002, the CNIB began construction on the property, which resulted in part of the rose garden being removed. Then, sadly, in 2004 the rest of the garden disappeared as "the balance of the land [was] developed into condos and upscale townhouses." There were talks about making a smaller fragrant garden. The author found no other records indicating what transpired of the project.
Department of Agriculture, Third Annual Report of the Horticultural Societies of Ontario for the Year 1908, (Toronto: Ontario Department of Agriculture, 1909), 10.
Lois Wilson, The Story of the Fragrant Garden (Toronto: Toronto Auxiliary, c. 1980s)
Fragrant Garden is Gift of Club to the Sightless, The Globe and Mail , September 7, 1956
The Fragrant Garden pamphlet, 1955
 New Garden for Blind Appreciated, The Globe and Mail, January 25, 1957
Art Drysdale. "Canadian Horticultural Personalities" http://www.artdrysdale.com/loiswilson.html (accessed November 9, 2017)
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