I can picture Jennie Butchart, suspended high up in a bosun’s chair, carefully coaxing soil and vine roots into limestone crevices of the abandoned quarry. She had commandeered the vast gaping hole, and now her Sunken Garden was taking shape.
“You’re ruining the country, Bob, just to get your old cement,” Jennie had reportedly chided her husband. A 1952 article in Maclean’s Magazine described it as thus…
“One day in 1909, in a glade sloping to a salt-water bay on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island… a woman stood on the edge of an abandoned quarry and began to cry.
Jennie Butchart knew the quarry well. For more than three years she had lived beside it. As a chemist in the cement works of her husband, she had analysed its high-grade limestone. She watched it yield them wealth. She knew its moods in the moonlight and at the height of storm. But the tears came because she hated it more than anything else in the world; its very ugliness so fascinated her, she could not stay away.
The perpendicular quarry walls, twisted from dynamite blasting, dropped sixty feet to a quagmire of two and a half acres of clay. Out of a subterranean spring percolated a muddy creek which fed a deep pond on the quarry floor. A hummock of grey rock, unfit for cement, rose like a spire from the centre… Jennie Butchart stood and cried.
It was then an inspiration came to her, ‘Like a flame’ she was to say, ‘for which I shall ever thank God.”
The Butchart Estate (pronounced Butch – Art) included both their home and the quarry. Now that Jennie’s creativity and determination had been sparked, debris and rocks were replaced or hauled out. Horses with wagonloads of soil trudged back and forth to the site. Douglas firs, cedars and Lombardy poplars were strategically placed – flowering trees, shrubs and annuals would follow. Jennie envisioned colour and vibrancy. To her, the eyesore was a canvas on which to blend a palette of nature’s rich hues and textures. After all, at heart Jennie was an artist… the world famous Butchart Gardens would become her living masterpiece.
Born in Toronto, in 1866, Jenanette Foster Kennedy was orphaned at the age of fourteen. Sent to Owen Sound to live with an aunt and her seven cousins, Jennie thrived in her new family. Both intelligent and artistic, she also embraced outdoor life while attending the prestigious Brantford Young Ladies’ College. Yet when offered a scholarship to continue art training in France, the young graduate declined. Instead, she choose a life with her new beau. The eighteen-year-old married the tall, determined, twenty-seven-year-old Robert (Bob) Butchart.
The young businessman was an innovator and within four years had opened Portland Cement Mill in Owen Sound. Portland cement derives its name from England, where in 1824 bricklayer Joseph Aspdin, patented the blend of limestone and clay. He named it after the local Portland stone it resembled.
In 1902, Bob would hear of a large deposit of limestone at Tod Inlet on Vancouver Island, about 20 km north of Victoria. With two daughters in tow, Bob and Jennie moved across the country and soon established a quarry and processing plant. Vancouver Island Portland Cement Company was the only cement-producing company west of the Great Lakes. The company not only pioneered refinements, but was the first to ship cement in sacks, rather than heavy, cumbersome barrels. Fortunes soared dramatically as Bob began to supply cement to facilitate the rapid building in the burgeoning province and beyond.
Jennie did not sit on the sidelines; she earned a certificate in chemistry to work in the firm’s laboratory. Yet her surroundings awakened her artistic inclinations. Re-envisioning her quaint on-site home, she hosted tea, croquet and tennis parties. Jennie was always forging ahead. The magnificent Sunken Garden was completed in nine years, and to this day cradles Jennie’s breathtaking vision. Yet if the old quarry is Butchart Garden’s celebrated centrepiece, supporting works of ‘art’ accompany this National Historic Site of Canada.
The rambling Rose Garden, blooms with some 280 varieties. The Japanese Garden, its authentic Torii gate, stepping stones, maple and beech trees evoke serenity. The Mediterranean Garden is a celebration of the island’s balmy, temperate climate. The Coast Salish totem poles, honour the storied culture of the island’s indigenous peoples. And my personal favourite, The Italian Garden – once the family tennis court – anchored by a sensuous arched wall of green, exotic palms and plants flourish from around the globe.
For indeed, the Butcharts were also avid travellers. A trip to Rome had inspired The Italian Garden, while travels to the Himalayas, the Pyrenees and the orient garnered yet more unusual plants as well as collectibles such as urns, statues and pagodas.
As Jennie’s gardens were designed, planted and flourished – with flowering plums, magnolia, dogwood, Siberian wallflowers, bachelor’s buttons, peony and so much more – her home flourished as well. After numerous expansions, a welcome sign in Italian hung over the door. The lady of the house epitomised the spirit of ‘Benvenuto‘.
Friends began to visit the gardens, they brought their friends, and their friends brought other friends. Soon the garden opened officially three days a week. By the First World War, sightseers were flocking to the garden in tallyhos, on horseback, aboard country trolleys. Now, Jennie flung her garden gates wide open… and left them open seven days a week.
When strangers peered in the windows of Benvenuto, friends would suggest to Jenny that she should charge admission. “Oh no,” she’d reply, “the flowers are fleeting. Why shouldn’t people enjoy them? They’re free for all.” Only one sign asked for ‘privacy’ and still does today. Enclosed by white lattice, it was Jennie’s one retreat – her private oasis.
Bob contributed to the thrilling panoply with rare birds, peacocks, pearl breasted pigeons, English and Mexican canaries, water fowl and German bullfinches trained to whistle. He imported 565 Japanese cherry trees to lavishly line the public road to the estate. At the time, its ‘beauty second only to Potomac Drive’ in Washington DC.
The entrepreneur expanded into timber, steamships, shipbuilding, coal, hardware and trusts. He had one of the first automobiles on Vancouver Island and followed it up with imported European and luxury models. With his chauffeur often in the back seat, Bob was known to cruise at breakneck speeds. When he reached eighty, his concerned wife convinced the police to revoke his driver’s license.
It’s said that Bob had the bearing of a distinguished officer, but it seems the self-made millionaire enjoyed life with a wry sense of humour: games of rummy with his servants, inclined to piping melodies from his beloved pipe organ into The Italian Garden to serenade lovers on evening strolls, offering a doctor who had performed an operation, part cash and part world travel for payment!
It’s reported that in contrast to her husband, Jennie was ‘as blunt as an Irish washerwoman’. Just over five feet, she was a force to be reckoned, one who cared more about the colour flow of her gardens than the cut and fashion of her dresses. Who can blame her, overalls and a straw hat were her preferred garb. It’s well documented that Jennie was an excellent storyteller, loved a good earthy joke, and she was generous and kind. Each week a gardener would don high rubber boots, wade into the wishing well to fish out the coins that visitors had cast in. Then wheelbarrowed over to Jennie as she sat on her sun porch, she would help package the coins to donate to charity.
As the unpaid official welcomer for the city of Victoria, Jennie entertained dignitaries, conventions and whole army regiments. She hosted tea parties for the poor and the aged, and delighted in drawing word pictures of the flowers for the blind so they could envision them as they savoured their scents. Sharing the enchantment of her garden was Jennie’s gift. Even when, by 1915, some 18,000 people toured the gardens, she refused to charge admission.
During the ‘off season’, the Butcharts embarked on extensive world tours (today the gardens are open year round.) “It seems lonely when the crowds stop coming,” Jennie lamented and Bob agreed, “I can’t understand how some people shut themselves away from their fellow man. Why, I’m never lonely when I can see so many people enjoying themselves every day.”
In 1931, Jennie was recognised as Citizen of the Year by the City of Victoria. In 1938, the ownership of the gardens was transferred to their grandson, Ian Ross on his 21st birthday and is still in the family today. In 2015, Jennie was inducted into the Business Laureates of British Columbia’s Hall of fame. Their motto – they built, we benefit – seems tailor-made for Jennie Butchart.
As I wandered the gardens, I mused that her spirit still graces the vistas; from the dramatic Sunken Garden to the whisper of maples rustling in the Japanese Garden, from the dancing fountain to the riots of colour and the vivacious scents of the blooms. It’s recalled that during Jennie’s time, many visitors didn’t realise the property was a private garden. People plucked flowers and fruit from the trees – this meant fewer to give away to hospitals. A few visitors were known to pilfer coins from the wishing well. Even a family dog and a garden peacock were carried off. When visitors carved their initials on various trees, Bob patiently designated a tree for that purpose alone.
Yet more often than not, their generous hospitality was repaid in kind. When the King of Siam visited, he invited the Butcharts to visit his palace in Bangkok. The following year, the travelling couple gladly took the King up on his offer, spending twelve days as his guests. The Butcharts lived well, both overseas and in their tucked-away haven on the Tod Inlet.
I vividly envision Jennie, weaving her way through her garden and thoroughly luxuriating in the divine setting she had created. Perhaps this last anecdotal story, during the visit of an English explorer, portrays this inspiring lady at her finest.
“I know one flower you haven’t got,” the visitor piped up as Jennie showed off her 5000 varieties. “You don’t have the blue poppy of Tibet.”
Jennie slyly led the visitor to a bed of heavenly blue poppies. “Why that’s impossible,” the Englishman exclaimed. “I just discovered them myself in Tibet!”
And indeed he had, and had then sent one flower from Tibet to London’s Kew Gardens. But Jennie being Jennie, had wasted no time and had already garnered the seeds from the blue poppy. I like to imagine her re-offering the guest a seed or two from the very flower he had sourced.
If only, if only we could stroll through the gardens with Jennie by our side…
If you go…
The Buchart Gardens are a short drive from Victoria, or hop on a bus.
Visit in the afternoon and stay for the free summer evening concerts.
Enjoy dinner in the Dining Room overlooking the Italian Garden, or at the more informal Blue Poppy Garden.
Treat yourself to some seeds in the wonderfully stocked Gift Store… wildflowers from here bloom in my own garden.
Adhere to the Garden’s Etiquette including no selfie-sticks and quiet conversation.
Read more about Vancouver Island’s other inspiring artist I’ve written of, Emily Carr, and of the island itself