Victoria: Journey to Butchart Gardens

Recently, our family made the great pilgrimage that many other families have made before us, to worship at the awe-inspiring shrine of the Alaskan wilderness.  As many others have done, we arrived at the great holy places by ocean liner, leaving behind the heat of the Lower 48 in August and sailing from Seattle, up the beautiful coast of British Columbia, to the awesome fjords of southeast Alaska.

The mixture of absurdly sybaritic luxury and the stupendously rugged wilderness was thrilling and of course wildly inappropriate somehow. Still, I have to confess, it was jolly fun and we loved every minute of it. Our giant ship sailed slowly into the deep but narrow Alaskan fjords, with vast glaciers at their heads and mountain peaks that plunged 2-3,000 feet from their cloudy summits into the cold, milky-green, glacier-fed water of the fjords. Whales and bald eagles were present everywhere, feasting voraciously on the abundant food supply of the brief but prolific northern summer.

On our way back south, we stopped at the beautiful city of Victoria, which I had not seen in many years, since the time I was a student and traveled through the gracious old capital of British Columbia on my way to Vancouver, where I boarded the trans-Canadian railroad for a cross-country adventure that began there and was to end in Toronto several days later. The first day and a half saw the train through the spectacular Canadian Rockies of British Columbia and Alberta, and of course the scenery from the observation car was simply breath-taking.

Several days of endless prairie landscapes followed before the journey ended and, although it is not my purpose here to rave on about that trip, I will just say that if you have ever thought of doing it, you definitely should.

But back to Victoria. It is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest. European settlement there began in 1843, with a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, before a series of gold rushes opened the west coast of North America to a stampede of settlement from California to the Yukon, and of course this was before the railroads reached the West and made travel there much easier.

In 1865, the nearby village of Esquimalt became the main British naval base in the North Pacific, and still today it is Canada’s west coast naval base.

Victoria has perhaps Canada’s most ideal weather: lots of sunshine, relatively little rainfall (for the very wet region) and delightfully mild temperatures, owing to its marine climate that rarely sees snow. It is a micro-climate that has justly earned Victoria the nickname “The City of Gardens”, and late August is a brilliant time to visit the city and its remarkable gardens.

 

Butchart-Garden-4-sunken-gardenThe fabulous sunken garden, the main attraction of the world-famous Butchart Garden, planted in a former quarry.

Like most opinionated gardeners, I have many favorites among the great gardens of North America. Among these are: Dumbarton Oaks and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.; the High Line in Manhattan; Filoli south of San Francisco; Halifax Public Gardens in Nova Scotia; the Callaway Gardens in western Georgia; the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, and on and on.

But the first really great garden I ever visited was Butchart Gardens; they took my breath away many years ago when I saw them as a student and I have been longing to see them again with my more mature sensibilities.  So, as soon as the ship docked we made a beeline there.

Butchart-Garden,-lawn-and-garden-in-sunken-gardenThe view of the central lawn, from inside the sunken garden.

Butchart Gardens, 55 acres of rather sublime beauty, are a National Historic Site of Canada, and receive over a million visitors a year. They have been in private, family hands since they were built in the early years of the 20th Century by the Canadian cement tycoon Robert Pim Butchart and his wife Jennie. They built their home there near their quarry for the limestone that went into their cement.

The first great garden created here was the Japanese Garden, on the shores of Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island not far from Victoria. It was designed by an elderly gardening genius from Yokohama called Isaburo Kishida. When the limestone quarry was exhausted in 1909, Jennie had the vision to turn that shattered industrial landscape into the gorgeous Sunken Garden that today is one of the most astonishing landscapes at Butchart.  It was completed in 1921, and was then followed by the Italian Garden in 1926 and a sprawling rose garden in 1929.

Butchart-Garden-5-the-cove-from-the-star-fountainLooking from the star fountain to the shores of Tod Inlet, on the coast of Vancouver Island near Victoria.

Today, the Sunken Garden remains an amazing accomplishment, and visitors stand, looking down into it or walking around it, hushed in awe.  You can observe photos of the exhausted quarry, the ruined and scarified moonscape that it was, and marvel at the vision Jennie Butchart had of the world-famous attraction it would eventually become.  It is quite mind-boggling, both in its conception and in its execution.

We walked from there around a broad, sloping lawn where concerts are performed on fine summer evenings, past a wonderful specimen of a monkey puzzle tree, to a long walk bordered at this time of late summer with explosions of dahlia flowers, each one larger and more brilliantly colorful than the last.

Butchart-Garden-1-dahlia-gardenWe walked from there … to a long walk bordered at this time of late summer with explosions of dahlia flowers, each one larger and more brilliantly colorful than the last.

We walked through the sprawling rose garden, now past its early-summer prime but still blooming like mad, and then made our way down the gentle hillside of the Japanese Garden, with it peaceful and authentic aesthetic and its many roaming paths and water features that crisscross the garden in its lovely cove-side location.

Butchart-Garden-8-the-rose-gardenWe walked through the sprawling rose garden, now past its early-summer prime but still blooming like mad.

How fine this garden must look in the spring, with its many azaleas in bloom and its famous Himalayan blue poppies to be found everywhere here. Many gigantic cedars shade this garden and other parts of the Butchart site, adding great dignity to the scene and perfuming the summer evening air with their fresh, clean scent.

Butchart-Garden-3-pond-and-red-bridge,-Japanese-GardenWe made our way down the gentle hillside of the Japanese Garden, with it peaceful and authentic aesthetic and its many roaming paths and water features that crisscross the garden in its lovely cove-side location.

We ended our tour by walking around the star-shaped pond and through a dense and closely cropped hedge into the Italian Garden, with its central water feature and its bedded plantings of hot, sun-loving orange, yellow and red flowers.

Butchart-Garden-6-the-Italian-garden-and-cedar-hedgeA thick cedar hedge encloses the Italian garden, which explodes with hot red, orange and yellow blossom, soothed here and there with cooling purples and blues.

Often you are disappointed when you revisit a place that was meaningful to you a long time ago. But sometimes, very rarely, the reverse happens and a place is even more meaningful to you when seen through older eyes, and through the tempered lens of greater age, accumulated experience and more mellow worldliness.  This is exactly what happened to me at Butchart Gardens.  Try it for yourself and see.

 

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.