Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Butchart Gardens

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Being "Thanksgiving orphans", as our American friends called us, is not a completely negative thing; it leaves you to do whatever you want during these traditional family gathering times. We opted for a long weekend in Victoria on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia in Canada. I had visited Victoria once before when I was five years old with my parents and siblings, so I felt quite nostalgic, seeing before my eyes all the old family photos, with three young children dressed in typical 70's clothes skipping around in the gardens of Vancouver Island. One of them, the Butchart Gardens, has after all these years become something of a family legend, and I don't know how much I really remember or how much I just think I remember after seeing the pictures for so many times. Anyway, I was very keen on a new visit, or maybe a "reality check" of the gardens, more than 30 years later.
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The sunken garden in the old limestone quarry.
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The Butchart Gardens consists of 22ha (55 acres) of differently themed gardens, restaurants, shops and other entertainments. They are a well-known tourist attraction and receive more than a million visitors each year. The gardens were first created as a part of the Butchart family home, but already by the 1920s more than fifty thousand people came each year to see them, many of whom by car (this gives a hint of how prosperous this part of the world must have been then!).
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The Butcharts were, what could be called the nouveau-riche of their time; Robert Pim Butchart was a former dry goods merchant who became a highly successful pioneer in the cement manufacturing industry in North America. The West Coast of Canada had rich limestone deposits that are vital for cement production, so he built a factory at Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island and in 1904, established a home there with his family. As the lime deposits were exhausted in the quarry near their house, his wife, Jennie, decided to turn the enormous hole in the ground into a sunken garden, much in vogue during that time. An old black-and-white film in the visitors centre showed this operation, where thousands of tons of top soil were brought in by horse and cart and used to line the floor of the abandoned quarry. It was quite amusing to imaging all the fun they must have had, playing around like this, doing what they loved with their newly-earned money.
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Reflecting their world travels, the Butcharts added a Japanese Garden in 1908 and an Italian Garden some years later. A Rose Garden replaced a large kitchen vegetable patch in 1929. In 1939, the Butcharts gave the Gardens to their grandson Ian Ross (1918–1997) on his 21st birthday. Ross was involved in the operation and promotion of the gardens until his death 58 years later; the ownership of the gardens remains within the Butchart family. In 2004, the gardens were designated as a national historic site.
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From the Japanese Garden; the wet climate of Vancouver Island is perfect for growing moss.
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All this adds up to the central experience of the gardens now; they are a huge business, meticulously maintained and orchestrated to serve the masses visiting them every year. Just driving in to the large and well-organized car park gives a feeling of what is to come; then passing through the shops and entertainment areas, now lavishly trimmed with Christmas decorations of all kinds and colours, rips off the hope of seeing something personal or individual. The gardens are still beautiful, even in the middle of a dark November day; the sunken garden is still as amazing a gardening idea as it was for a hundred years ago. But I really would have hoped that all the kitsch would have been left out (I am leaving it out from my blog, well aware that it changes the impression you get as a reader). Of course, the gardens were designed to impress from the beginning, but is there such a need to overdo it? The gardens should be left to tell their story, unusual and eccentric as they are, and I am sure (or I hope...) that garden visitors still would come in thousands to see the impressing floral displays in their wonderfully beautiful natural environment.
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Oh, I could not resist - the giant sized Three French hens from the Twelwe Days of Christmas displays found in the gardens in December. What a delight...?

4 comments:

camellia said...

Lovely garden, beautifulle landscaped. I had no idea this existed! Thanks for taken me there!

Gunilla said...

What lovely pictures. I whish I coud go there myself and have a look.

Have a nice day

Gunilla

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hello Camilla and Gunilla; yes, it is a beautiful place, despite the "commerce"... I would like to get there again in March/April when the bulbs and Magnolias and other spring flowering plants are out, I am sure they make a magnificent display, and it will be interesting to see new varieties in flower.

James Golden said...

Buchart Gardens looks much better in winter than in season. I visited on recommendation of rave reviews from friends just before September 11, 2001. I have to say I was not just disappointed, but appalled at the excess, the overdone annual plantings, the pastiche, the commercialization. I absolutely hated the gardens. I know I go against the tide of praise.