By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher
Fragrance, colour, and delight await you at this old quarry site.
It all started in 1904 with the gift of some sweet peas and a single rose.
Little did Jennie Butchart realize that when she planted them beside her brand-new home just north of Victoria, B.C., that it was the start to today’s internationally renowned Butchart Gardens.
Over a million visitors annually marvel at her flowery legacy that rambles over the family’s 130-acre estate. The remarkable variety of landscaping styles includes a formal Italian garden, a rose garden, Japanese garden and our personal favorite, the sunken garden.
Perhaps we are attracted to it most because of the creative transformation that sunken gardens represent, for they are located in what was once Robert Pim Butchart’s limestone quarry. Or perhaps the very name “sunken garden” invokes a sense of mystery and surprise…
Whatever the reason, the sunken garden juxtaposes many delightful nooks and crannies with breathtaking vistas that, in the tradition of all superb landscape designs, seem to be effortless if not “natural.”
But anyone who knows their origin marvels at them. Anthony Everett has worked at the garden for several years in various capacities. He revealed some of the sunken gardens’ secrets to us as he escorted us along their winding pathways. Jennie Butchart worked especially hard at this section of garden. Everett assured our never-ending admiration for her when he told us she was “lowered by ropes over the edge of the quarry, in a bosun’s chair” so that she could tuck soil and then ivy plants into the walls of the old pit.
Unfortunately, no photographs exist of Jennie suspended in her chair. We can only imagine a long-skirted, Edwardian figure industriously creating what has now grown into a green, living cascade of ivy drapery. What vision she had! It included a realization that Victorian residents and visitors alike would enjoy coming out to Benvenuto (as she and her husband called the estate) for an afternoon stroll and tea. By 1915, she served tea to 18,000 people. Nonetheless, the family did not start charging admission to what became known as Butchart Gardens until 1941, when adults paid a quarter and children 10 cents!
Prices have risen and now visitors can purchase their afternoon tea, lunch or dinner in what was once the Butchart’s residence. In fact, we just enjoyed a delectable luncheon in mid-June, served by attentive staff in the airy conservatory room. Overlooking the formal Italianate gardens built upon the original estate’s tennis courts, this room creates a light-green sanctuary. We can hardly imagine a more delightful setting for lunch.
Personally, we have a very special love for Butchart Gardens. We first visited the place on our honeymoon 20 years ago. Whenever we’re in Victoria, we return here and rediscover tranquillity, gleaning many tips about gardening and flower species as we wander the wending paved footpath.
Because the gardens are open 365 days a year, we’ve discovered many types of plants that enjoy different conditions and which flower at different times of the year. This June, a lupin-like spire of blossoms in pale yellow and orange riveted our attention. By glancing at the handy pamphlet entitled Flower Guide to the Butchart Gardens, we discovered that we’d found the fox lily, a species hitherto unknown to us.
As avid gardeners, we find ourselves inspired not just by the wide variety of plants here, but also by their artistic composition. Sky-blue and midnight-blue delphiniums rise majestically behind powder-puff pink peonies. Fragrances headily spice the air… and even the trellises that support bowers of climbing roses and wisteria are pretty, for they are molded and carved out of cement to resemble branches. Indeed, since the quarry once supplied limestone for the Butchart’s Portland Cement enterprise, these trellises fittingly echo the family history.
If the gardens themselves are not enough to compel you to linger, the entertainment will invite you to do so. From June 15 to September 15, there is music to enjoy; from July 3 to September 4, there are fireworks to marvel at. Families are welcome and you can take a blanket and picnic basket, and spread out on the lawn to enjoy the show.
There’s always something to tempt us to return to Butchart Gardens. Last December, we found ourselves wandering around the grounds, which were fantastically illuminated by thousands of Christmas lights. We marvelled once more at our beloved Sunken Gardens whose quarrv walls were covered in tiny royal blue lights set to mimic waterfalls. All the while, as we explored, the sounds of carolers singing such standards as Silent Night wafted through the air.
We’ll never tire of these gardens. Whether or not you have a green thumb, whether you possess a perennial bed or a patio pot, we’re sure you’ll find this wonderful spot an oasis of beauty, fragrance and colour.
IF YOU GO
A scenic 30-minute drive from Victoria. Open year-round, seasonal rates and times. Write for information to: The Butchart Gardens, Box 4010, Victoria, BC V8X 3X4: tel: (250) 652-4422; fax: (250) 652-3883; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Internet: http://butchartgardens.bc.ca/butchart/.
As noted, we have repeatedly visited the gardens and have enjoyed afternoon tea, lunch and dinner on various occasions. All are superb. We recommend that you reserve. Different entertainment is also offered year-round and “A Victorian Christmas” spent in the capital of British Columbia and at the Butchart Gardens is a “must-see” attraction.