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Thursday, March 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Victoria's famed Butchart Gardens celebrates its 100th anniversary

By John and Sally Macdonald
Special to The Seattle Times

In the Sunken Garden, a walkway bends along the floor of an old limestone quarry. Limestone was used to make Portland cement, a business that first attracted the Butcharts to British Columbia.
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Getting there
VICTORIA, B.C. — There was a time when one of us would rather have the flu than spend an afternoon in an English garden.

Which one? Here are a couple of hints.

He knows a rose, but if you mention planting sweet peas, he thinks you're talking about his favorite green vegetable.

And, if pressed to tiptoe through the tulips on a garden tour, he'll wrinkle his nose and offer to meet later at the nearest pub.

Like husbands under pressure often do, however, this one eventually caved and agreed to a late-summer visit to the world-renowned Butchart Gardens near here.

He lugged his "gardens-are-for-girls" attitude along with him at first, eyes glazing when told that Jennie Butchart, a usually quite proper Victorian woman, started this 130-acre enterprise with, coincidentally, a rose bush and a few sweet peas.

His attitude improved, though, when he heard the whole story of Jennie. For beneath that corseted exterior was no shrinking violet, but a woman who cultivated flora with a derring-do that would have undone many a man.

The Butchart Gardens celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, with new historical exhibits, a scarlet tulip named in Jennie's honor, and totems being created on the premises throughout the summer by First Nation carvers Charles Elliott and Doug Lafortune.

Some 1.3 million visitors walk the paths here every year. And most — including at least one dubious husband — have come away charmed by Jennie's story and the extravagant splashes of color and clouds of flowery fragrance that permeate her Eden, no matter the season.

Gardens kept growing

Jennie Butchart didn't know much about gardening beyond roses and sweet peas when she moved to British Columbia from mid-Canada in 1904. Her husband, Robert, had come west two years earlier to find a site to manufacture Portland cement, an increasingly important building material for bustling coastal towns and cities.

This dahlia is one of some 700 varieties of bedding plants used each year in Victoria's Butchart Gardens.
The Saanich Peninsula, 14 miles northwest of Victoria, had everything Robert needed: limestone, clay, fresh water and access to the sea from nearby Tod Inlet south, and west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Pacific.

Jennie was 38 when she arrived. She soon began trying to beautify the place — a daunting task when your yard butts up against a quarry.

She dolled up the house in lattice-work and Victoriana. And when that wasn't enough, she began putting in a Japanese garden. She enlisted the help of Isaboru Kishida, a Japanese landscape artist who designed several Japanese-style gardens in the area, and laborers on loan from the quarry.

Once Jennie started planting, it seems she couldn't stop.

When she and Kishida finished the Japanese garden, she added a formal Italian garden near the house, a pond in the shape of an eight-pointed star and bed upon bed of roses. All are still where she put them.

In 1908, Robert's limestone played out, leaving a desolate pit too close to the gardens for Jennie's comfort.

So she began the gritty task of turning the ruins of the mining operation into a sunken garden, planting Persian plums and Lombardy and white poplars.

When the trees failed to hide the scarred cliff that loomed up over the pit, she wasn't deterred for long.

She had herself lowered from the top of the cliff in a bos'n's chair, secured by (probably highly skeptical) workmen with ropes. There she dangled while planting every barren crevice in the limestone wall with a little sprig of English ivy.

Setting the tone

The tale of Jennie's moxie — which impressed the heck out of the dubious one in our party — falls fast from the lips of David Clarke, who tells it with a twinkle in his eye.

David Clarke — a Butchart family spokesman, occasional tour guide and 37-year employee at the gardens — shows off a hanging bouquet that includes osteospermum.

Clarke knows Jennie's gardens — which grew into a widely known and heavily visited botanical enterprise during her lifetime — as well as just about anyone.

A former physical-education teacher, Clarke began working at the Butchart Gardens 37 years ago. While performing in the summertime chorus, he met and married the Butcharts' great-granddaughter, Robin Ross. When they divorced a few years later, he stayed on as an employee.

Clarke has taken on about every chore there is in what has long been a year-round entertainment and horticultural attraction. He's performed on the stage, parked cars, planted flowers, run the gift shop and, most recently, been a family spokesman and occasional tour guide.

The gardens became what they are through sheer serendipity, Clarke says.

For starters, there's the location; the site may have been short on limestone but it was long on water.

"Here on the Saanich Peninsula, we have a microclimate with much more rain than in Victoria — 50 inches a year as opposed to 27 inches in the city," Clark says. "We're able to catch the runoff before it flows into the sea and we have good wells. So we never have to worry about having enough water."

Serendipity — in the form of a neighbor's bull — came into play again soon after Jennie had the place blooming, Clarke says.

At this point Clarke interrupted the story for a moment while he stepped off the paved path to retrieve a sodden Handi-wipe from the base of a rhododendron.

"Sorry, but it's everyone's job to pick up around here," he said, shaking his head at the potential for things to get out of hand. "You can't walk past those things. Otherwise someone else will come along and try to park their car there.

"Where were we? Oh. Legend has it that one day Robert ran into the bull in a nearby pasture. He took safety in a tree. Jennie saw him and yelled to the neighbor to call off his bull. The neighbor basically blew her off, and she later said she'd vowed right then to make people more welcome than she'd felt."

With that, the tone was set.

Generations of gardeners

The Butcharts named the place Benvenuto — Italian for "welcome" — and began inviting friends in to have tea and see Jennie's evolving gardens. Soon, more and more curious strangers began showing up to see the mix of exotic and rare shrubs, trees and plants they collected on their world travels.


While the scents of winter jasmine, flowering plum and cherry trees linger in the early spring air, there's a special sense of anticipation at Butchart Gardens. The first bloom of a new variety of tulip is expected within a few weeks. It's the "Jennie Butchart" tulip, a dark red, lily-flowered variety (illustrated above) developed in Holland to commemorate the gardens' 100 years in bloom.

Anniversary celebrations

The Butchart Gardens plans special 100th anniversary celebrations throughout 2004. Among special features this year:

• Family artifacts, including Robert Butchart's desk, books and a collection of mechanical music boxes, will be on display in the Butcharts' home, where special afternoon teas will include an anniversary gift.

• The gardens' original flower-pot-making machine will be up and running, producing pots as they did here until the mid-1950s.

• Topiary sculptures of animals will be displayed throughout the gardens from the end of May through September.

• Throughout the summer, visitors can watch two 30-foot totems being carved by First Nation artisans Charles Elliott and Doug Lafortune.

Some activities are being added through the year. For the latest information: 866-652-4422 or

By 1915, the story goes, Jennie had served tea to 18,000 visitors.

Before they died — Robert in 1943 and Jennie in 1950 — they gave the gardens to a grandson, Robert Ian Ross.

"He had a choice," Clarke says. "Either look after the gardens and make them pay for themselves, or subdivide the property and get on with it."

Ross took the garden path.

When he died in 1997, a son, Christopher, took over, expanding the gardens and its staff to 240.

It was Christopher who began the weekly fireworks shows in summer when most of the tourists show up, choreographing lights and music in a Disney-esque display (think glowing flowers dancing to classical and show tunes).

Each show draws thousands of visitors who are entertained by local musical groups until it's dark enough for the fireworks. Christopher died in 2000, and since then the shows have ended with flickering firelights spelling a salute to him: "Good night, Christy."

We followed Clarke from one of Jennie's gardens to the next, stopping to smell a rose or marvel at a perfect begonia along the way.

In back of the residence, we strolled the formal Italian Garden. Its geometric pool was once a tennis court — until Jennie got carried away with planting and needed the space. For water lilies, it turned out.

Just beyond the house, a red lacquered torii gate flanked with copper beech trees (some of the oldest trees on the grounds) led us to the Japanese Garden. Such gardens were something of a fad among ladies of Jennie's time, Clarke said, with small quiet ponds, stepping stones and benches on which to sit and ponder.

Jennie's features a tall hedge with a circular cutout at eye level to provide visitors a leaf-framed view of sailboats moored in a tiny bay below the gardens.

"Japanese visitors tell us the Japanese Garden isn't terribly authentic," Clarke said. "Gates like that usually mark the entrance to Shinto shrines, not gardens, so a purist wouldn't approve. But Jennie liked it."

'It looks like a Monet'

From the Japanese Garden, a short stroll took us to the Rose Garden, with ramblers, climbers, arbors and plain old bushes, all marked with the name of the variety and country of origin.

Beyond the Rose Garden is a lookout that provides a panoramic view of the Sunken Garden. Teak benches made from the decking of old sailing ships provide a place to stare down at the scene below — a patchwork quilt in bloom, shaded by trees Jennie installed. Toward the back, a fountain provides a chorus line of water shooting 70 feet in the air.

And off to the side, a limestone wall drips with Jennie's English ivy.

"It looks like a Monet," one of us whispered as we sat on a bench and drank in the scene. "It's awesome. Why haven't you made me come here before?"

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter. John Macdonald retired as The Times travel editor. They live on Lake Union.


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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