In the fall of 2014, April and I made a visit to Victoria, British Columbia also known as Canada’s “Garden City” on Vancouver Island.
We woke up early to make a seven-hour drive to catch the ferry in Port Angeles, WA across the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.
As the good ship Coho made her crossing, our worries slipped away watching dolphins swim in the boat’s wake and catching glimpses of orcas in the distance.
Soon the historic Empress Hotel built in 1908 above Victoria’s harbor came into view. April and I knew we had arrived at our kind of city.
The English that first settled Victoria in the 1840s and named the place after their queen, continue to leave their mark on the city. Like us, you can hop on a red double decker bus, tour the museum of anthropology and natural history, charter a boat for whale watching, listen to kilted bagpipers busking on a street corner, happen upon a band of merry goats in a local park or treat yourself to high tea complete with sandwiches and sweets at the Empress Hotel. April and I take our tea time seriously and so do they!
Victoria also has a reputation for another favorite English pastime: strolling gardens. As our tour bus driver joked, the maritime and snow-free climate makes a perfect environment for “the newly wed, the nearly dead (retires love the mild weather) and the flower beds.”
And there is no better place to stroll the flower beds then at the Butchart Gardens north of town!
Once a private estate, the garden’s story began in 1904. Robert and Jennie Butchart moved to Vancouver Island to develop a cement plant by opening a limestone quarry where the now famous Sunken Garden is located. Like most natural resource extraction industries at the time, the deposit of limestone was quickly exhausted, leaving an excavated cavity in the earth. However, Jennie had a vision to transform the desecration into a place of beauty. From 1912 to 1921, she enrolled the help of horse-drawn carts to haul and place soil from nearby farms. Nine years later the five-acre site had over 151 flower beds. But Jennie didn’t stop there. Throughout the 1920s, Mrs. Butchart continued to design and plant her grounds adding the present-day rose, Japanese and Italian gardens.
Today, over 900 varieties of plants grow in the Butchart Gardens. The Rose Garden alone has 280 varieties with over 2,500 individual plants!
The Japanese Garden features 500 azaleas and rhododendrons creating a blaze of color in spring while the leaves of 74 Japanese maples grace the garden in autumn with gold, orange, scarlet and crimson.
The Italian Garden with its reflecting pond and 18 flower beds showcase 22,000 spring bulbs and other annual flower displays throughout the year. This garden also symbolizes the power gardening can have over other activities. Once upon a time this area was the family’s tennis court but soon the love and need for more plants lead to the conversion of the courts to the present day garden.
It was in the Italian Garden, April and I took a reprieve from our plant explorations and stopped at the gelateria. As I devoured my pistachio gelato, I was struck by the realization that Jennie’s botanical legacy had thrived for over 100 seasons outlasting the limestone quarry that only persisted eight unsustainable years. To me, the Butchart Gardens is more than a nice walk among the flowers. It serves as a living example of the way gardens can heal the earth. Imagine if we could look upon all of our abandon industrial and urban lands (places with serious toxicity aside!) as an opportunity to transfigure them into gardens. These forgotten and derelict places could become infused like a good cuppa at the Empress Hotel with radiance and vivid color for leisurely strolling plant-loving-people to enjoy!