Visiting the Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia: Set Eyes on This National Historic Site of Canada

Established by Jennie Butchart, The Butchart Gardens is a 55-acre display garden situated in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia. Well over 100 years old now, this internationally acclaimed garden remains under the private ownership and operation of the Butchart family. In 2004, on its centenary, The Gardens received the honor of being designated a National Historic Site of Canada. Hans Tammemagi walks you through how to make the most of your visit.

The Butchart Gardens outside Victoria, BC
Summer at the Butchart Gardens. Photo Credit: The Butchart Gardens

The trail I am following through towering Douglas fir trees is enclosed in deep velvet shade. Abruptly, the copse ends and I emerge, eyes blinking, into the brightly lit Sunken Garden. Floral beds flow everywhere, arranged geometrically like platoons of soldiers with bright tunics.

Enchanted visually and by the aromas, I can understand why Butchart Gardens is considered one of the best manicured gardens in the world and is usually crowded with visitors. Even pets are welcome, with special drinking fountains set at ankle height to serve the visiting canines.

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A Stunning First Impression at the Butchart Gardens

Located about 22 kilometres north of Victoria,on the south end of Vancouver Island, the Gardens consist of a glorious 55 cultivated acres set on a 135-acre propery. Even before reaching Butchart, I was awed by the hilly landscape and towering Douglas firs and cedars. And of course, this area is the mildest in Canada, with daffodils, snow drops and crocuses appearing in February — no wonder Victoria, not far from Vancouver, is the retirement capital of the country. 

The Sunken Garden at the Butchart Gardens
The Sunken Garden at Butchart Gardens. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

The Sunken Garden are awash with the vibrant magentas, pinks and purples of rhododendrons and azaleas. I climb the stairs to the top of a pinnacle in the middle of the Sunken Garden. The bird’s-eye view reveals the sheer size and vast variety of the multi-coloured beds. At the south end, the Ross Fountain sprays water high in five huge jets that are like a troupe of choreographed ballerinas, constantly changing shape and size, and towards the evening, even colour.

If you’re planning on taking a tour to Butchart Gardens, there are several different options to choose from. You can take this full-day tour to the gardens from Vancouver, which is an excellent way to see the gardens if you’re coming from farther away. If you’re looking for a tour out of Victoria, then taking this guided tour of the gardens with transportation and free time to explore afterward will certainly be worth it.

The Legacy of Jennie Butchart

The Gardens sit astride a former limestone quarry that in the early 1900s was used to make cement for a burgeoning province, and also made a fortune for the owner, Robert Butchart. His wife, Jennie Butchart, a talented and energetic woman, started planting gardens around their residence. With access to the workforce at the cement plant, she quickly expanded the gardens in the quarry, which became the Sunken Garden.

Jennie was fearless and was often seen hanging in a bosun’s chair while planting ivy on the quarry walls. It must have been quite a sight to see a woman in long dress dangling precariously on the quarry wall.

Not only was Jennie brave, but her generosity was legendary. Her growing floral showcase attracted visitors like a magnet, and she served tea to all those who were drawn by the invisible floral force-field, sometimes even complete strangers. 

An old rose at the Butchart Gardens
An old rose at the Butchart Gardens. Photo Credit: Hans Tammemagi

Maintaining the high standards of a world-class Gardens requires extensive effort: today, about 50 gardeners with 26 greenhouses. The Gardens celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2004 with particular vigour: it received the high honour of being declared a National Historic Site of Canada.

Experiencing the Wonder of the Gardens

Soon I am under the shadow of two towering totems designed and carved on-site in the classic Coast Salish style by master carvers Charles Elliot of the W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) First Nation and Doug Lafortune of the SȾÁ¸EUTW̱ (Tsawout) First Nation. I am enthralled by the shapes of a killer whale, a salmon, a bear and more, and love the close association Indigenous people have with nature. The Butchart Gardens is located in the traditional territory of the WSÁNÉC people.  

The Japanese Garden

Birdsong fills the air as I visit each of the four other main garden areas. The Japanese Garden, which I enter by passing under a traditional torii gate, was started in 1906. This is a peaceful oasis with subtle shades of green and everything in perfect harmony. I meditate and enjoy the pools reflecting the stately bamboo, and white stones that have been raked into curving sensuous lines. 

The Japanese Gardens tumbles down to a delightful seaside cove where visitors can arrive by boat or floatplane. A fleet of four soothingly quiet electric boats give tours around Tod Inlet and Brentwood Bay. Sadly, they were halted during covid, but may restart in the near future.

It’s an excellent way to view the rugged coastal terrain, and immerse yourself in nature. You will see seals, eagles, jellyfish and more. Before the covid pandemic, Butchart Gardens provided free pump-out services for all boats in the area to prevent pollution of the bay by sewage. 

The Rose Garden

The Rose Garden, my next stop, seems in motion with delicate butterflies, birds and bees flitting everywhere in the multitude of flowers. They are like addicts, attracted by the wonderful fragrances wafting in the air, created by more than 3,000 rose bushes in 250 varieties.

The roses have delicate soft petals that range in colour from soft pastels to deep purples and crimsons. Some of the oldest rose varieties in Canada are found here, one dating to 1821. 

The Rose Garden Arch at the Butchart Gardens
The Rose Garden Arch. Photo Credit: The Butchart Gardens

The Italian Garden

I stroll to the Italian Garden, a quiet, graceful area with fountains shimmering with water amidst symmetrical hedges and walkways. Several benches are made from the decking of British sailing ships, and European artisans crafted many of the bronze statues, historical treasures from the worldwide odysseys that Jennie and her husband made in search of exotic plants. 

Feeling like I am on an international tour, I head to the gelateria where more than 18 delicious flavours are on offer, all made in-house. Selecting salty-caramel, I carry on exploring, much refreshed by the gelato cone. 

The residence is a graceful mansion where the Butchart family originally splashed in an indoor, salt-water swimming pool or enjoyed themselves with bowling and billiards. Today, it features a tea room and a top-quality restaurant with delightful views overlooking the gardens. 

The Butchart Gardens – A Place of Celebration

Fireworks at the Butchart Gardens
Fireworks at the Butchart Gardens. Photo Credit: The Butchart Gardens

Beginning in the 1950s, Butchart Gardens has developed a rich program of entertainment. I love summer Saturday eves when spectacular fireworks — considered amongst the best in the country — light up the night sky. Later in the season, the Victoria Symphony will play on stage while I relax on the concert lawn.

Although many holidays are celebrated, Christmas is the highlight of the year. The Gardens transform into a fairy-tale land with thousands of lights. Dazzling dioramas depicting the Twelve Days of Christmas are set throughout the Gardens. I love singing along with Traditional Carollers or listening to the trumpets and trombones of the Festive Brass orchestra.

Butchart Gardens has many faces, varying from day to night and from season to season. It would take dozens of visits to get even a glimpse of the enormous history and botanical richness that reside here. I plan to return.

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