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British Columbia’s Butchart Gardens

British Columbia’s The Butchart Gardens, with its mesmerising flora, owes its existence to one woman. Here, Natasha Dragun reveals the remarkable story of how Jennie Butchart created a little piece of Canadian paradise.

When Jennie Butchart and her husband, Robert Pim Butchart, moved to Vancouver Island in 1904, they had cement on their minds – not gardens. The couple were in the cement business, and the west coast of Canada was a natural fit for them given the region’s abundance of rich limestone deposits, which was needed to create the quality cement for which the Butcharts were known. So they waved goodbye to Ontario and created a new life for themselves in British Columbia, establishing a quarry at Tod Inlet on the Saanich Peninsula, and a home just up the road in the sleepy town of Brentwood Bay.

View of Garden path framed by manicured lawns and flowers, Canada
No one could have foreseen the serendipitous series of events that followed, leading to the creation of a remarkable garden refuge. Today, The Butchart Gardens is a designated National Historic Site of Canada and, more than a century after its planting, attracts a million visitors every year.

The First Seeds

The Butcharts’ limestone quarry was soon exhausted and left quite a scar on the Saanich landscape –the massive, gaping hole wasn’t pretty, but Jennie saw potential. In the years prior, she had developed quite the green thumb growing sweet peas and roses in the fields between her home and the pit. She had also commissioned Japanese landscaper Isaburo Kishida to create a Zen garden for her, overlooking the sea, channelling the calming design sensibilities of green spaces that traditionally characterise cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo. This lush new expanse made the disused quarry it enveloped even more barren and jarring. Jennie knew she had a challenge in front of her.
Green manicured lawns surrounding the brightly colored flower beds

From nearby farmland, Jennie brought in tonnes of topsoil by horse and cart, using it to create a fertile floor in what would become her Sunken Garden. She created mounds and planted flowers in terraces, and tucked ivy into rock crevices to hide the grim, grey quarry walls. She established a rose garden which now has over 250 varieties of the fragrant bloom. And then, on her unused tennis court, she created an Italian garden, erecting a bronze statue of Mercury beside an intricate, cross-shaped pond. Inspired by her work, Robert began collecting ornamental birds from across the globe; he introduced ducks into the Star Pond (an incredible 12-point water feature surrounded by colourful annuals), let peacocks loose on the long grassy lawn, and crafted elaborate birdhouses wherever he found a vacant nook.

The Eden Jennie had created did not go unnoticed for long and soon the Butcharts were receiving dozens of curious visitors at their home, which they poetically named Benvenuto (Italian for “welcome”). They graciously served tea to everyone who dropped by to gaze at the incredible gardens, and continued to do so until the sheer logistics of brewing and pouring tea for thousands of people became too immense.

View of Butchart Gardens, Canada

A Family Affair

Robert’s failing health and the onset of World War II forced the Butcharts to move to Victoria (the island’s capital) in the 1930s, and for a while their beautiful garden went into a state of decline. The Butcharts gave their grandson, Ian Ross, the gardens in 1939, and their daughters took charge of the daily operations until his return from active duty in the Canadian Navy. It’s still in the family’s hands today, with the Butcharts’ great-granddaughter, Robin-Lee Clarke, overseeing the property, aided by a small army of landscapers. 

Over the years, various relatives have expanded the now 22-hectare garden, adding facilities and adornments to make it even more magical. In the not-so-distant past, Vancouver Island’s first carousel was built here, lovingly handcrafted with 30 wooden animals and intricate rose patterns. There’s now a restaurant in the Butchart’s former residence, and also a cafe as well as a waterfall, a number of new fountains and sculptures, and expanded ponds for the growing menagerie of wildlife attracted by the fragrant blooms.

Interior dining room set up for dining at the Butchart Gardens, Canada
After heavy snowfall damaged plants one year, the Spring Prelude indoor garden was added to the estate, not only allowing visitors to stay warm while flower-hopping, but also giving them a preview of the colourful displays they could look forward to with the arrival of warmer weather. And celebrating 10 years of tours in 2018 is the Jennie B, an electrically driven 12-passenger boat which plies the shoreline in summer, giving visitors an appreciation for just how vast, and impressive, the gardens really are.

The Gardens Today

It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit The Butchart Gardens or how many times you’ve visited, you’ll always discover a reason to return. Perhaps it’s to explore the estate’s history, which reveals itself in twists and turns along garden paths dotted with an occasional limestone trough and set against a backdrop of an old smokestack. Perhaps it’s to learn more about some of the million or so plants that thrive here. It should definitely be to see the grounds change colour and shape with the seasons.

In winter, pine needles poke through the occasional dusting of snow, with pops of colour from daphne, pansies and witch-hazel. Come December, Christmas decorations and fairy lights add sparkle to the festive atmosphere, alongside an outdoor ice-skating rink, carollers and garden displays telling the story of the 12 Days of Christmas. In autumn, there are dahlias and chrysanthemums, although the real stars are the deciduous maples, ginkgos and sweet gums in the Japanese garden, which turn gold, russet and red to the delight of leaf peepers.

Large formal gardens lit up with Christmas lights, Victoria, Canada

Eye-popping purple delphiniums, peonies and tuberous begonias emerge in summer, when there is nightly live entertainment on the lawn and fireworks every Saturday evening. In the early days, Mr and Mrs Ross would host weekly symphonic concerts here when the weather was warm; today’s schedule is far more diverse, and might include jazz and classical music or shows by The Weeds, a group comprised of members from the gardening crew.

And then there’s spring, when a carefully orchestrated symphony of colour explodes across the grounds in a patchwork of flowerbeds as more than 300,000 daffodil and tulip bulbs bloom among the camellias and rhododendrons. If there weren’t regular reminders around the estate, you’d find it hard to believe that something so beautiful came from something as grey as a limestone quarry. Experience the magic of The Butchart Gardens on the 19 Day Passage Through the Rockies and Alaska Cruise.

Images courtesy of Graham Werner PH:0418369178