Wandering Through Butchart Gardens

Photo by Lesli Christianson-Kellow

As I get older I find myself enjoying flowers more than ever before. I’ve always had a penchant for peonies, but now I even enjoy the first tulips that start popping up in the spring, why is it I’ve never noticed the gentle curve of the green stem as it balances the bucket-shaped petals with such grace? Am I seeing the flowers more clear even though my vision now requires me to have a pair of readers nearby? Why has it taken this long to appreciate the beauty of flowers?

I recently returned from a road trip to Vancouver Island. It is the best time of year – the rhododendrons were in full bloom. I took advantage of my time in Victoria to visit Butchart Gardens, it seemed a must-do, given my newfound appreciation of lovely plants.

When my husband and I arrived at Butchart Gardens mid-morning on a Friday, we met up with Jill Smillie, director of public relations, sales and marketing at Butchart Gardens. I hadn’t been to the garden in over 30 years and required a quick overview of the garden’s vast layout. I didn’t want to get lost. Here’s a tip: If you follow the and start where it says ‘Start Here’ and then stick to the left, that route will take you through all of the gardens. You’ll hear all types of birds chirping the whole time you wander through the gardens. Keep your eye out for hummingbirds, too. Butchart Gardens is spread over 55 acres. The Butchart Estate is 130 acres. The gardens were the brilliant idea of Jennie Butchart who had a lovely home, but the view of the old limestone quarry that her husband had excavated for his cement business, left something to be desired. So, Jennie Butchart set about to create a little something pretty to look at. She enjoyed gardening and was a visionary in terms of knowing just the right combination of plants to put where. Soil was hauled in by boat via Butchart Cove to contain the gardens. Jennie designed one garden but must have gotten hooked because she just kept adding more flowers and trees. Who could blame her?

It’s Victoria, so the growing season is much longer and milder than in Alberta, allowing for the most amazing varieties of flowers, shrubs and even trees. The Butcharts had a penchant not only for flowers but for travelling, too. So, they recreated their travels through the creation of their gardens.

The look of the gardens changes on a weekly, if not daily basis. A few weeks ago the grounds had different colours and blooms and the grounds will continue changing all season, every season. I’ve missed out on seeing some of the early spring-flowering bulbs, which are finished now. There are some later spring flowers on their last days. I was shocked to learn that there are 26 greenhouses on site and I immediately wanted to tour them all, but the greenhouses are not for public viewing. I was curious to see what was sprouting in the greenhouses to get an idea of what goes on behind the scenes.

The gardeners have been busy with summer planting. They complete a lot of planting in the early morning so as not to disrupt visitors as they walk around enjoying the flowers. It’s a bit mysterious not to see any gardeners. It’s like all of this creative layout and synchronicity just happens by magic. Being a gardener, myself I can appreciate the obscene amount of hours that goes into even my own small garden, so a garden like Butchart Gardens, situated on 55 acres, would require an army of gardeners, or in this case 50 full-time gardeners, I’m told. There are gardeners who plant and dig and move plants around and then there are the gardeners that plan the look of the garden and how it will change each week of the season. Throughout the season annuals, perennials, bulbs and ground covers are skillfully coordinated to overlap and complement each other style and colour from week to week. We continue walking, sticking to the left.

Just beyond the majestic Redwoods, with deeply grooved bark, that were planted in 1934, we come upon a cozy wooden building, no bigger than a large playhouse. It is one of Mrs. Butchart’s original tea houses. Once she started growing her garden, the neighbours would come over for tea and to enjoy the flowers. Mrs. Butchart was very English and loved to host afternoon tea. I think it’s lovely that this novel little building was kept standing and not bull dozed in favour of something modern. It is completely charming to imagine sitting here having tea with Mrs. Butchart. The view out of the windows of this old tea house look down onto the Sunken Garden. There are layers of varying shades of green trees and shrubs and a blending of pink, white, yellow, red and purple flowers on trees, on shrubs, on the plants adorning the grounds. It is like Mrs. Butchart stood with her painting palette and thoughtfully used her paintbrush to create the garden of her dreams.

Great thought is put into maintaining the classical and traditional garden that it once was and always will be. The philosophy behind the Butchart organization is that if Mrs. Butchart came back today she would recognize her garden. She would definitely recognize her rhododendrons, rhodos as the locals call them. Rhododendrons can be smaller dwarf bushes or tall trees, but what makes them stand out are the abundance of funnel-shaped flowers that grow in solid bunches all over the tree. The flowers come in all colours – pink, orange, purple, yellow, and scarlet. I love the Rhodos this time of year in Victoria.

Coming down the hill, we arrive into The Sunken Garden which is situated where the limestone quarry was mined quite deep. The pathway stretches past the new Bog Garden and ends at the Ross Fountain. The fountain was installed for the 60th anniversary of the gardens after Ian Ross, the Butcharts grandson was gifted the gardens on his 21st birthday. He ran the gardens for 50 years. Now his daughter, Robin-Lee Clarke, who is the great-granddaughter of Jennie and Robert Butchart runs the gardens. Butchart Gardens is very family oriented. I think Jennie Butchart would be thrilled to know that her great-granddaughter is taking care of the same gardens that she loved and tended to.

Near the middle of the Sunken Garden is a tall limestone mound. Of course, the mound is landscaped and well covered with shrubs and flowers, you’d never know it was made of limestone. We walk up the stairs to the top and it provides the perfect lookout to appreciate all sides of the Sunken Garden below. We notice that the tiny flowers on the bushes that line the stairs are covered, literally covered, with bees. We can even hear the busy bees buzzing. It reminds us of the necessary relationship between flowers and bees. The flowers rely on the bees for pollination and the bees depend on the flowers for nectar and pollen.

Originally Lombardy Poplars were planted to block some of the ugliness of the quarry from the view of the residence. The residence which once had a swimming pool and bowling alley now houses the restaurant where you can make a reservation for tea.

Every once in a while we see something in the trees or off in a garden bed, which makes us look twice. They are topiaries placed around the gardens, to entertain visitors with their whimsical nature – animals, mostly. They look like large chia pets.

We round a corner and the tulips are layered by height and the colour is surreal. The tulips line the large pathway that leads up to one of the newest additions – Rose Carousel. Thirty wooden animals are hand carved and represent some of the Butchart family’s pets and travel, probably the only Carousel where you’ll see an orca. Children and adults are poised on their chosen animals waiting for the music to cue the turn of the Carousel. Who doesn’t like a Carousel? I love Carousels, so I try to hop on the orca, but I can’t swing my leg over the fin on its back, so I decide it’s my lucky day because the Camel is free, and I hop on it and hang on. The music starts and for three minutes, I’m a kid again, watching the assortment of animals – horses, camels, orcas, slowly rising and falling. Too soon the music stops.

After leaving the Rose Carousel we pass by two tall totem poles that were carved on-site and installed for the garden’s 100th anniversary. Also on the 100th Anniversary, in 2004, the Butchart Gardens has designated a historic site of Canada. Mrs. Butchart would be delighted to know that her garden has been cherished and protected and will continue to be.

I have to mention that as we walk around the gardens, there is a continuous floral fragrance that wafts in the air. I don’t think there’s a better smelling place anywhere, well, maybe a bakery.

Most years there has been fireworks each evening in the summer. We walk by the lawn, where people come with their blankets to view the fireworks, but for now, there are no fireworks. This is due to the staffing issues that is affecting most service industries. There will be entertainment Friday and Saturday evenings this summer on a stage overlooking the lawn. Jann Arden, Barney Bentall and Selena Ryder have graced the stage in the past to entertain Butchart Garden patrons.

We come across a funny-looking tree that looks like a tree made out of huge pipe cleaners. It’s a Monkey Puzzle Tree, native to South America. Nearby is an original barn that now has a fancy organ that often gets played during fireworks. Next to that is a dragon fountain from China, and a little further along the path is the sturgeon (3 fish) fountain from Florence, Italy. This makes me remember the big bronze boar near the entrance of the Gardens, which is also from Florence, Italy.

I discover that the Rose Garden has not blossomed yet. I’m a little disappointed, as I read there are 2500 rose plants, and it will be spectacular when it blooms, which will probably be in about a week, a reminder that the garden changes on a daily, if not weekly basis. A row of 30 arches will be covered with roses on vines soon and between the sweet smell and the dainty rose petals it will the highlight of the gardens. There’s a Jennie Butchart Rose and I’m betting it’s lovely.

I find out that the Arbutus tree is the one with no bark. It’s quite a striking tree. We’ll be long gone and it’ll still be growing.

We enter the Japanese Garden via the original Torii gate. Japanese gardens are typically calm and serene and as we enter the moss carpet, it does feel peaceful. There are random mushrooms and bonsai-like maple trees. The trickle of a stream that ends at a pond with stepping stones perfect for crossing, with a quick stop at the halfway mark to enjoy the view from the water. There are 500 rhododendrons and azaleas in this area alone! I think the Japanese Garden is my favourite garden. This was Mrs. Butchart’s first garden. There’s a stunning flower bed of blue flowers, that has a simple structure that is called a Himalayan Blue Poppy.

The Himalayan Blue Poppy seeds were shared with Mrs. Butchart by the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. She was among one of the first gardeners to grow them in North America. It has delicate poppy petals and a big yellow pop-out button centre. It’s unique because it’s a periwinkle blue, a colour that is rarely seen in flowers, let alone in a poppy.

We leave the Japanese Garden, although I could stay in there all day, and pass by the Star Pond with a frog fountain spouting water. A little further takes us to the Italian Garden. We purchase a scoop of chocolate gelato from Benvenuto Gelateria, where the gelato is made on-site, and sit on a bench and enjoy the Star Pond.