Vancouver Island is a small island off the coast of British Columbia that is known for many things. British Columbia’s capital is at our southern tip, we have an endless supply of breathtaking beaches, old growth forests and jaw dropping waterfalls. We also happen to be a gardener’s dream vacation; Victoria is often touted as Canada’s “Garden City” for many reasons. Every year we start the summer by hanging over 1,600 hanging baskets across the city, endless gardens line our sidewalks and intersections. Then you have our long list of public and private gardens. Government house, Butterfly Gardens, Beacon Hill, Hatley Castle, The Horticultural Society of the Pacific, Abkhazi Gardens and of course world famous Butchart Gardens. Every single one of these gardens has an amazing story to tell, from a royal love affair to a literal seaside castle. But one of my favorite stories is that of Jennie Butchart, from an orphan in Ontario to one of Victoria’s most prominent and inspirational women of history.
She created something from nothing in a way that had never been seen before and has not been seen since. She was an adventurer and creative soul. Together she and her husband welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors into their private estate to enjoy what was once just a vision that over years and years of dedicated hard work eventually became a reality. Her legacy lives on and the gardens are now recognised as a National Historic site of Canada. The actual garden layouts and designs haven’t changed much since Jennie’s time so walking through them you can walk through a piece of Canadian history and appreciate the back breaking labour that went into their creation.
Jennie lost her parents at the young age of twelve and moved in with her aunt. Despite her tragic loss she would eventually earn a scholarship to what was one of Canada’s most prestigious schools for girls and be invited to study abroad in Paris when she graduated. Rather than travel to Paris to pursue her education in fine art she married her childhood sweetheart, a handsome young gentleman named Robert Butchart. The young couple travelled to Europe together for their honeymoon and while in England, Robert gained access to a cement recipe that would forever change their lives. Robert was an enthusiastic entrepreneur and recognised Portland Cement was gaining popularity and with no distributors on Canada’s west coast Robert took the recipe to create Portland Cement and they made their way to British Columbia. They settled onto a property just outside of Victoria that was rich in limestone deposits, limestone being a crucial ingredient for Portland Cement. Jennie worked alongside her husband and eventually Robert was hugely successful in his efforts. While his success was undoubtedly impressive the aftermath was undeniably ugly to say the least! A massive gaping hole now stared Jennie in the face. It was said to bring her to literal tears, conflicted over the reality that something so ugly could have brought her young family such wealth she now has a problem to solve. After years of working the quarry they had exhausted the limestone and her husband had already moved on to a new location to further his cement making business. Leaving Jennie to stare loathingly at the massive pit in her backyard. She tried to cover it up with fruit and poplar trees, but it was still an eye sore. It was time to let her creativity shine and she set to work on one of the earliest examples of a land reclamation project. Though at the time she was merely trying to cover up the destruction brought about ironically by her husband’s very successful business.
Jennie had a vision and despite those around her doubting her dream she stuck to her guns. Wagon after wagon of topsoil was delivered to begin the process of turning an old limestone quarry into the garden of her dreams. Despite being quite well off Jennie never shied away from hard work, at times dangling fifty feet off the side of the quarry, in a bosun chair to push soil and ivy vines into rock crevices to cover the barren and ugly stone walls. It took nine long years for her vision to become a reality but finally her dream was complete and where once stood a hideous example of exploitation of natural resources now stood a stunning garden landscape. They christened it the “Sunken Garden” an appropriate name considering its location, but Jennie was only just getting started!
Between 1906 and 1929 The Butchart’s added a Seaside Japanese garden designed by Isaburo Kishida, a seventy-year-old expert in Japanese Garden design that came to Victoria to assist with a garden in gorge park. He would then go on to design Jennie’s Japanese gardens and the upper Japanese Gardens at Hatley Castle and a variety of other private and public gardens around the island before returning to Japan. The Italian and rose gardens were also created around this time. The Italian gardens incorporated a large star shaped pond that once housed Roberts prized duck collection. Where his wife collected rare plants, Robert spent his time collecting ornamental birds from around the world. They built the Italian gardens over top of the families Tennis courts. When visiting today you can enjoy traditional gelato at the Gelateria Benvenuto. Somehow Jennie also managed to deliver two beautiful daughters and become a qualified chemist during these years as well. Considering I struggle to manage basic college courses, my small garden and my own two children I frankly have no idea how she managed this but it’s safe to say I am in awe of her success!
Word of the Butchart’s amazing garden paradise spread quickly, while Victoria was exploding with development during the 1900’s Jennie and Robert were quickly becoming local celebrities and laying the groundwork for a tourism industry that would one day be worth millions. They were exceptional examples of kindness and hospitality. By the 1920s over 50,000 people were visiting their home and gardens every year! Not only did they welcome those invited and those uninvited onto their private estate, but Jennie could often be found serving tea directly to her guests herself. The Butchart’s started calling their home Benvenuto, meaning welcome in Italian. A term they likely picked up on one of their many trips abroad. If Jennie was not greeting guests in the tea house she was often found with her hands in the dirt, working alongside her gardeners. At times she was even mistaken as one of the groundskeepers. It’s said she used to enjoy answering questions but never accepted the tips that were offered, laughingly telling the guests that “the old lady wouldn’t like that” referring to herself.
Jennie’s gardens became a cornerstone for Victoria and local government would often bring visiting leaders, emperors, and royalty to visit the Butchart’s and walk the expansive grounds. In 1939 Queen Elizabeth even walked the gardens and met with Jennie and Robert. As the Butchart’s slowed down, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren stepped in to carry on the legacy. Their own personal additions are visible throughout the grounds. From the Ross Fountain, to the choreographed fireworks, and the wooden carousel of circus animals. Each piece was added over the years and contributes to the legacy of the Butchart’s and their breathtaking gardens. Jennie continues to inspire gardeners from around the world and her family has ensured that her hard work stays cemented in time for generations to come.