ANNAPOLIS ROYAL — They’re lined up three deep after lunch, eagerly awaiting the 1 o’clock opening. A bright yellow rope barrier holds everyone back.
An outdoor concert? Black Friday at Walmart? No — these folks are at the Annapolis Royal Farmer’s Market for the Atlantic Canada Rare and Unusual Plant Sale.
Nova Scotia is full of keen gardeners, and the late-spring sale has come to mark the unofficial start to gardening season here. Now in its eighth year, the sale was started by horticulturalist Jill Covill, who runs Bunchberry Nurseries just outside town. She spearheaded a community magnolia tree planting project 20 years ago, with 30 different cultivars and over 100 trees, turning Annapolis Royal into a magnolia capital.
“We were getting lots of high-season and early-fall visitors, but we wanted to draw people here in the shoulder season,” Covill says.
Nestled beside the Annapolis River and Bay of Fundy waters, the valley town is protected from the fiercest Atlantic weather by a gently ridged mountain. Locals refer to the area, which lies in USDA hardiness zone 5A, as the province’s “banana belt”; its relatively extended warm, sunny and robust growing season attracts many green thumbs.
Rare plant sales are popular in many places where conditions make for avid gardening. The Atlantic Canada sale focuses on unusual flora. About 20 vendors now take part, and hundreds of people attend, from as far away as Ontario.
“It’s now an integral part of the spring season in Annapolis Royal,” says Jane Nicholson, who owns an interior decor store in town and is a long-time member of the chamber of commerce. “It contributes immeasurably to the business and cultural life of the area.”
This year, on a cool but sunny Sunday in late May, Peter Davies, the town crier charged with announcing pretty much anything official, was in his bright red, yellow and black period costume. He grandly called the sale open with a countdown.
Soon, the booths were buzzing with customers. Jean Smith clutched a Japanese maple, its slender, fountain-like leaves evocative of the harp strings for which the tree is named: “Koto no Ito.” Friends expressed their admiration for her find.
There was much exclaiming over discoveries.
“Oh nice, what’s that, Heather?!”
“Wow, that’s beautiful, Jim!”
“Thanks, it’s a Troat’s Dwarf Birch!”
Marcia Field, wearing a periwinkle sweater and straw hat, toted a vibrant dwarf yellow yew that caught the sunshine.
“I have a gorgeous deep blue ceramic pot at home; I think it’s going to look wonderful,” she beamed.
Iain Jack, owner of Fernwood Nursery in Hubbards, displayed an elegant Lady in Red fern with red-violet stems, and an eared lady fern that transitions from chartreuse to deep green. Both generated lots of interest, as did a few pots of frothy green leaves on ebony stems — Himalayan maidenhair ferns, with new fronds emerging in a bronze-pink hue.
Ken Shannik of Insigne Gardens in Halifax sold out of his pink bloodroot early.
Other folks strode off with rare yellow peonies and garnet red ones. Japanese mayapple was popular; deer don’t like it, so it’s good for country gardens.
There were tables full of succulents and alpine plants.
Dave Veinotte of Reo Nursery in Mahone Bay showed a rare Greenwood Lakes dwarf hemlock — 12 years old, a diminutive tree prized by bonsai collectors.
There was even a plant-themed craft-beer vendor, Lazy Bear Brewery from Smith’s Cove. Visitors sampled a stout featuring a blend from provincial roaster Sissiboo Coffee, an India Pale Ale made with local hops, and a beer brewed with rose hips from wild and windswept Brier Island.