October 01, 2012


David Ellis

IT was over a neighbourly cup of tea one day in 1909 that Canadian housewife Jennie Butchart bemoaned the fact that her husband Robert's one-time limestone quarry next door on Vancouver Island off Vancouver City, was not only an eyesore, but "that dust from it gets in everywhere."

Her neighbour suggested that maybe a nice little lattice screen out the back would help, and a few days later kindly dropped-in with a half dozen sweet pea plants to grow over the lattice that Jennie said she'd order.

And those half dozen sweet peas prompted Jennie Butchart to start visiting her local plant nursery in search of other annuals and perennials to block out the dust from Robert's old quarry, whose limestone had been used to make cement.

It was a tiny start to what has become one of the world's grandest and most-visited private gardens, attracting over 1-million goggle-eyed green-thumbs a year.

As her little garden started to expand, Jennie asked Robert if she could borrow some labourers he still employed to decommission the quarry, to help her prepare more ground for her sprawling displays of flowering shrubs, trees, bulbs and summer bedding plants.

Within a few years complete strangers were popping-in for a chat with the effervescent Jennie, every one of them being offered a cup of tea, a biscuit and a chat and a look at her garden. On one particular day, not realising who Jenny was, a visitor offered her a few cents as a tip for her hospitality: quick as a flash she replied: "Oh no, Sir, you don't know old Mrs Butchart, she'd never allow it."

On another, visitors walking around the gardens were aghast to look into the old quarry and see Jennie, dress swirling and under her trademark straw hat, swinging down the quarry walls in a rented bosun's chair, popping hundreds of ivy cuttings into every little nook and cranny.

Soon after she bought a farmyard of manure-enriched soil and had it delivered to aboard a fleet of horse-drawn carts, and once again asked Robert if he had some labourers to help her spread it over the quarry floor.

Robert took great pride in his wife's efforts, and when his quarry finally and officially closed in 1916, he turned his attention to assisting Jennie and developing his own interest in exotic birds, collecting from around the world numerous species from peacocks that strutted their front lawn, to ducks for the ponds Jennie had created in the quarry, pigeons and parrots… and animals from bears to zebras for a small menagerie.

He also collected quirky statues and castings to scatter amid the gardens.

By the 1920's an amazing 50,000 people a year were pouring through the Butchart's place during the warmer Canadian months, all being welcomed free of charge to admire the quarry floor that Jennie had turned into a spectacular Sunken Garden, plus a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden on what had been their tennis court, a Rose Garden on their once-kitchen garden, and a Star Pond.

Within a few years Jennie and Robert had a whopping 20ha of gardens, re-named their home "Benvenuto," Italian for "Welcome," and had hired staff to serve Teas and other refreshments.

Visitors by the mid-1930s were coming by their bus-loads, and free admission remained the case until 1941 when a small fee had to be introduced to meet maintenance costs.

Today over 1-million-plus visitors invade the Butchart Gardens every year, marvelling at 400,000 Spring flowering tulips, 400,000 annuals in flower from March to October, more than 3000 roses, the Japanese and Italian Gardens, and Jennie's artificial lake that's now home to scores of duck species from around the world. In all 700 varieties of bedding plants blossom through March to October.

The Butchart Gardens are still family owned and run, and the original "Benvenuto" that once had such luxuries as its own bowling alley and an indoor swimming pool is a restaurant and offices.

The gardens are open daily from 9am (1pm Christmas Day,) and do not close until 9pm mid-June to early September, and from December 1 to January 6.
Footnote: And despite the huge number of visitors annually, the Gardens have never had to put up a notice asking visitors not to pick the flowers.


Photo Captions:


[] THE pits – Sunken Garden in the original lime quarry

[] ITALIAN Garden on what was the tennis court outside the family home (now a Restaurant)

[] FOUNTAIN in the deepest part of the old quarry

[] LOOKING across the lawns to the original Butchart family home

[] THE Star Pond

(Photos: Butchart Gardens)


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