Mrs. Butchart's Famous Gardens

As a girl Jenny Butcliart liked to go up in balloons but she came down to earth and planted one of the world's finest gardens in a quarry near Victoria when her husband agreed to dig his cement farther back into the ground

MAC REYNOLDS September 15 1952

Mrs. Butchart's Famous Gardens

As a girl Jenny Butcliart liked to go up in balloons but she came down to earth and planted one of the world's finest gardens in a quarry near Victoria when her husband agreed to dig his cement farther back into the ground

MAC REYNOLDS September 15 1952

Mrs. Butchart's Famous Gardens


As a girl Jenny Butcliart liked to go up in balloons but she came down to earth and planted one of the world's finest gardens in a quarry near Victoria when her husband agreed to dig his cement farther back into the ground

ONE DAY in 1909, in a glade sloping to a salt-water bay on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island, eleven miles north of Victoria, a woman stood on the edge of an abandoned quarry and began to cry.

Jenny Butchart knew the quarry well. For more than three years she had lived beside it. As chemist in the cement works of her husband, Robert Pirn Butchart, she had analyzed its high-grade limestone. She had watched it yield them wealth. She knew its moods in moonlight and at the height of storm. But the tears came because she hated it more than anything else m 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 of the quarry floor, its summit almost flush with the top of the wall where Jenny Butchart stood and cried.

It was then that an inspiration came to her "Like a flame." she was to say, "for which I shall ever thank God.”

This inspiration has made life brighter for three generations. It launched Victoria’s multimillion-dollar tourist industry (at the time the garden city had eighty-two saloons and no flower boxes swinging from the street lamps It enshrined Bob and Jenny Butchart as the sweethearts of Vancouver Island.

For with her tears Jenny Butchart watered a quarry garden that is one of the wonders of the world.

Where legend says Jenny Butchart was lowered over the quarrv cliffs in a bosun’s chair, about three million sight-seers have since followed, seven hundred thousand of them since 1946 alone, descending more timidly on forty-eight cement flagstones, into what looks like the willow pattern in a deep china bowl.

The garden brings more tourist dollars to Victoria than any other single attraction, yet for more than three decades Bob and Jenny Butchart

voluntarily lived in a goldfish bowl, spent thirty thousand dollars i year keeping their garden open to the public free of charge. Today the Butchart Gardens, more popular than ever, tries to balance its books with admission charges and the sale of seeds, stereoscope slides and lavender sachets, but loses ten thousand dollars a year.

Jenny Butchart's quarry has been called one of the five great private gardens of the world. It has inspired poetry and lent its name to chinaware floral designs and sweet peas. Seeds from the garden have gone to the far corners of the world, where its name is better known than the capital of the province it adorns. Probably no garden on the continent has lieen photographed so often.

It spawned a new school of showmen, the fast-talking never-stuck-foran-answer sight-seeing guides. They pilot twenty-five buses on the garden run. often make five return trips a day. add new landmarks every trip, and bone up on the difference between male and female begonias at pre-season lectures at the garden. Like Jenny Butchart. they know the quarry in all its moods.

They know it as a hotbed of straw-hatted camera-carrying American tourists and a great place to take the old woman for a Sunday picnic. They also know it as a cathedral of quiet w here glazed clay gnomes nod over churchwarden pipes. Recently, " Mrs. Lord, who had come to the garden on a sight-seeing bus. lost her husband and searched through the quarrv crying, "Oh Lord, oh Lord . . It didn’t seem out of place.

In the quarry that once seemed a "silent ghastlv tomb" to Jenny Butchart the once muddy creek sparkles among five thousand varieties of flowers whose verv names, like love-in-a-mist anti Cupids dart, are enough to make a sight-seeing guide blush.

The creek picks its vav under arched bridges, past rock outcroppings thick with rambler roses, beneath walls hung with Virginia cree[>er and wisteria and English ivy and the v ines of Continued on ¡mite 36

Continued on ¡mite 36

Mrs. Butchart's Famous Garden


grapes, beside a waterfall that tumbles down the cliff like an unruly lock of silver hair, around the spire of lowgrade rock, now niched with winding steps and covered with alpines, alongside a mossy path of steppingstones and on into the deep blue quarry pond where, through reflection, the parade lines up and goes marching by again. And the silver-leafed poplars Jenny planted forty years ago sway their tips high above the quarry walls.

The quarry steals the show at the Butchart Gardens, but it is only the centrepiece for twenty-five acres of formal flower displays, copses, dim woodland walks, pools, fountains and spreading green lawns set in a frame of firs, cedars and yews. For a couple who hardly knew a daisy from a dandelion when they launched the garden it was no small triumph.

Robert Pirn Butchart had been bom in Owen Sound, Ont., in 1S57, the son of a ship chandler whose business he inherited. When he was twenty-seven he married eighteen-year-old Jeanette Foster Kennedy of Toronto. She had made some balloon ascensions and had hoped to marry the keeper of a livery stable so that she could spend her life riding horses, her favorite sport.

After Bob Butchart had safely grounded Jenny he took a trip to England to get the lowdown on the new Portland cement industry. Nobody was giving away any secrets so he decided to return home and stick with the ship chandlery. But one day in Canterbury his eye caught a sign: A. S. Butchart. Cement Manufacturer. On a hunch he entered the shop and found that the proprietor was indeed a distant relative. When he left the shop he had the information he needed, returned to Canada and in 1890 founded the Portland Cement Company at Shallow Lake, near Owen Sound—the first in Canada.

The company boomed and in 1905 Bob and Jenny Butchart went west to investigate limestone deposits at Tod Inlet, a minor reach dropped off by .Saanich Inlet on its travels to the environs of the city of Victoria. They decided to stay.

By 1909 the quarry was exhausted and so was Jenny Butchart. On her property was the ugly pit. a sprawling cement mill and a shanty town housing a hundred Chinese, part of the plant's two-hundred-man work torce. The scene was set for her tears.

When she told her husband of her inspiration he shared her enthusiasm. He lent her a group of Chinese workmen from the plant and gave her the first of what were to be thousands of dollars. Jenny began to sink the Butchart money back into the earth from which it had come.

As a girl she had won, but not taken, a three-year bursary for art study in Paris. Her eye for color and form served her well in her new project.

She scoured the countryside for rich [ black loam and had it dumped by the ton over the quarry sides until there were eighteen inches of soil on the quarry floor. A friend gave her some sweet peas as a starter and from these she graduated to shrubs and climbing plants, ferns and ivy. She sowed grass and made borders of blooms and planted rock gardens. Trees were transplanted from every part of the

The Butcharts were beginning to travel then and they brought back plants from Alaska and the Yukon

and the Himalayas and the Pyrenees. Within two years the quarry was a cup brimming with bloom, in three it was spilling over into surrounding gardens.

She planted a rhododendron grove and a rose garden surrounded by dwarf boxwood hedges. Paths began to lead through hedgerows of English lavender to a Japanese garden, with dwarf trees and pagodas set on stilts in pools and lacquered bridges, and carried on to a pond shaped like a thirteen-pointed star, enclosed by a circular hedge of Cryptomeria japónica trained in arches twenty feet high. After a trip to Rome, Jenny installed an Italian garden with a rectangular lily pond.

Friends began to '.risit Jenny Butchart's garden, and they brought their friends, and their friends brought other friends. Soon Jenny had to open her garden three days a week to accommodate them all. By the First orld War total strangers were flocking to the garden in tallyhos and on horseback and on a bobbing country trolley. Jenny flung her garden gates open and left them open seven days a week.

The Butchart house, too. was growing in every direction like the garden. Jenny put a sign over the door that said Benvenuto, meaning “welcome” in Italian. She spent the rest of her life making sure it never lost its meaning.

She planted flowering plums and magnolia and pink-flowered dogwood and Siberian wallflowers and finefeathered cockscomb and bachelor’s buttons. She installed a sand pile for the children and little chairs and tables under the maples. She put in swings and slides and archery rings and a croquet lawn. Shetland ponies pulled children in a Sicilian pony cart.

She put in garden seats and a teahouse made from logs of Douglas fir. She supplied the teahouse with cups and saucers and teapots and furniture and magazines. She put goldfish in the quarry pond, trained them to come for feeding at the clang of a dinner bell.

When strangers peered in the windows of Benvenuto, friends would tell Jenny she ought to charge admission. “No,” w-ould be her reply, “the flowers are fleeting. Why shouldn’t people enjoy them? They’re free for all.”

Bob Butchart contributed rare birds, bronze and gold peacocks, pearlbreasted pigeons, English and Mexican canaries, water fowl and German bullfinches trained to whistle. Birds in glass cages formed one entire wall of his heated salt-water swimming pool. Others he kept in heated aviaries on the grounds. Many roamed the gardens

The mile-long Limekiln Road leading to the estate was a public thoroughfare but he supplied the cement to pave it and imported five hundred and sixty-six Japanese cherry trees, making its beauty second only to the Potomac Drive in Washington. D.C.

Keep - off - the - grass signs had no place in Jenny Butchart’s scheme of things. And only one sign said "private.” It was cut in a flagstone by o white wicket gate that opened onto two hundred square feet of garden beside the house. The garden was enclosed by white lattice, bowered with roses. It was Jenny's one retreat.

Robert Butchart, now a millionaire with interests in a cement-plant chain, timber, steamships, shipbuilding, coal, hardware and trusts, was tall, lean and had the bearing of an English officer. His voice was quiet but he only had to say things once.

Crazy about mechanical gadgets, he had one of the first automobiles on Vancouver Island and followed it up with imported European and luxury American models. He would put the chauffeur in the back seat and drive at breakneck speeds. When he was

eighty Jenny talked police into taking away his driver’s license.

He liked to play rummy with the servants as long as he could win. His hobbies, such as the rare birds, didn’t last very long. But he never got tired of his three Pekingese dogs, which were with him always, and his electric pipe organ. The organ, a magnificent cherry-wood affair, was a companion piece to a twelve-foot-high piano he had shipped home from Germany. It operated off player rolls, which suited him fine because he couldn’t play it. Loudspeakers carried its melodies into the garden.

When lovers strolled in the Italian garden after dusk Bob would switch on concealed lights, play wedding music on the organ. To an interviewer he said: “I’ll tell you all there is to know. Once upon a time there was a pretty girl who married a man and lived happily ever after.”

Jenny Butchart’s features, in contrast to her husband’s, were as blunt as an Irish washerwoman’s. She was a little over five feet and so plump that her husband bought her a rowing machine, but she never used it. Her dresses were out of fashion and frequently dirty from the garden; her favorite garb was overalls and a straw hat. She wore no jewelry, liad lost two weddings rings and said to heck with a third.

She liked practical jokes and once put soap on Bob’s violin bow. When he broke the instrument in a rage and took up the mouth organ instead she agreed it served her right.

At a world's fair, when Bob placed orders left and right for an electricdishwasher, an organ, a helicopter (“a great thing for traveling between the garden and Victoria, Jen”), Jenny followed behind canceling the orders. “I’m his nurse,” she told the confused salesmen, “he’s a little . . . you know.” And she would tap her finger solemnly against her temple. Bob got an organ later anyway.

She was an excellent storyteller and loved a ribald joke. Sometimes she even embarrassed the sight-seeing guides, who were among her best friends and whom she called “my boys."

She sometimes changed the layout of the gardens on their suggestion. It was bus driver George (Rebel) Mowat, a veteran of twenty-five years on the Butchart Gardens run, who suggested the wishing well. Every week he would plunge into it in high rubber boots and cart the coins to Jenny’s sun porch in a wheelbarrow, where they were packaged for charity. It was at Rebel's suggestion too that a high hedge was trimmed enabling visitors to see an untouched neighboring quarry and compare it with the sunken garden.

Rebel once was taken aback when a member of his party remarked: “My, aren’t the acoustics in the quarry simply wonderful.” But he wasn't defeated. “Ah madam,” he replied, "you should come around next week when they’re in bloom.”

Jenny Butchart was the unpaid official welcomer for the city of Victoria. She entertained dignitaries, conventions and whole army regiments. She also gave tea parties to the poor and the aged, and got her greatest thrill drawing word pictures of the flowers for the blind, to go with the perfumes they could smell. At other times, she would sit in the window of her drawing-room and watch strangers enjoy her private sanctuary. The Butcharts took their world tours during the “off season” at the gardens. She said: “It seems lonely when the crowds stop coming.”

Bob Butchart agreed. “I can’t understand how some people shut themselves away from their fellow men,” he once said. “Why I’m never lonely when I

can see so many people enjoying themselves every day.”

Many visitors never realized the gardens were the Butcharts’ private property. Some who did responded in strange fashion. They picked the flowers. They ate the walnuts and the figs and the fruit before they were ripe (Jenny gave the fruit to hospitals). They robbed the wishing well. They stole one of the Pekingese and one of the peacocks. They broke the teacups in the log teahouse. When they carved their initials on the trees Bob Butchart designated a silver poplar as official

carving tree for self-protection.

One day a group of tourists walked uninivited into Benvenuto, sat down at a table in the sunroom and demanded tea from i white-jacketed Chinese houseboy. Accustomed to such emergencies he accorded them all the courtesies. Jenny saw what had happened. walked over and asked the tourists if she could join them. “No thanks.’ one of them replied, "there are other tables vacant."

On another occasion, when an American tourist tumbled into one of the garden’s pools. Jenny had the

unfortunate woman brought into the house, loaned her dry clothes, sent her chauffeur into Victoria with the wet ones to be dry-cleaned, and later had them delivered at the woman’s hotel. When the tourist returned to her home in the United States she sued Mrs. Butchart for damages.

But Jenny Butchart refused to be soured She reacted by stocking the seed house with gaily colored umbrellas so future visitors would stay dry, as far as the elements were concerned at any rate.

More often, the hospitality was

repaid in kind. After the King of Siam had visited the garden, he invited the Butcharts to visit his palace in Bangkok. The following year Bob and Jenny were in Siam. They spent twelve days as the King's guests.

With them was a man w-ho found the Butcharts as amazing as anything in Siam. He was a doctor from Portland. Oregon, who had successfully performed a major operation on Bob Butchart. He had less success in collecting his bill. There was good reason; the bill came to twenty-five thousand dollars. Bob Butchart balked, offered

half the amount and a trip around the world with the family. He accepted.

No less amazed was Captain Bailey, an English explorer who once visited the quarry garden. "I know one flower you haven't got.” he told Mrs. Butchart as she was showing off the five thousand varieties in her garden, "the blue poppy of Tibet.”

Jenny slyly led him to a bed of blue poppies. "Why it’s impossible,” the Englishman exclaimed. “I just discovered them myself in Tibet."

He was right too. He had sent one flower from Tibet to London's Kew

Gardens, where it was named after him. The flowers in Jenny Butchart's garden had come from its seeds.

Most of the garden fixtures were acquired in Europe or the Orient during the Butcharts' tours. Urns from France, statues from Italy, pagodas from China came to the quarry from the world's bazaars. In the early Thirties the Butcharts returned from a bus tour of France with the most unusual trophy of all. a White Russian prince for a son-in-law.

Their recently widowed daughter. Mrs. Jenny MacLaughlin Ross, had

accompanied her parents on the tour and met Prince Chirinsky-Chikhinatoff in Paris. He was tall, handsome, spoke several languages, and his father had been an aide to the Czar. He saw a lot of the Butcharts during the tour; he was the driver of their car.

At Benvenuto the prince haunted the kitchen, showed the cooks how to make borsch, played cribbage and talked over the fine points of the sight-seeing business with the guides. The marriage broke up after a year. But the second Jenny, now sixtv-four, is still addressed as Princess, even by her son, Ian Ross, who now manages the gardens.

The city of Victoria, during this period, had not taken the Butcharts for granted. In 1928 Robert Butchart had been made a freeman of the city. In 1931 Mrs. Butchart was named the city's best citizen.

In life, they had been surrounded by flowers. But when death came to Robert Butchart in 1943, and to Jenny Butchart in 1950, there was not a single spray of flowers in the chapels. And the earth they had made so fair did not claim them. Their bodies were cremated and the ashes scattered on the waters of Tod Inlet.

The war brought hard times to the gardens. Grandson Ross, to whom Jenny Butchart had transferred ownership of the gardens in 1938, was away in the navy. A proposal to put the gardens under public administration until he returned was turned down by the municipalities. The gates were closed for the first time. The deer came back and ate the spring tulips, the pheasants ate the bulbs and the waxwings ate the berries.

With war’s end Ross returned and a new era began for the gardens, although many of the old faces remained. Veteran head gardener William (Bob) Ballantyne, from Scotland’s Cheviot Hills, had stayed on through the war. Stan and Alf Shiner, whose father had come to the gardens in 1918, carried on.

Most of the Chinese gardeners have gone back to China or started hand laundries in town. Bob Butchart’s pipe organ peals in a Vancouver Church, without its bagpipe attachment. The birdcages at Benvenuto are empty and vines have sealed the doors and the Sicilian cart is stored in the vaultlike basement under the house.

An era of roto-tillers and gas-powered hedge clippers and pressurized insect sprayers has come to the gardens. Thirty-six-year-old Ross commutes between Victoria and the gardens in one of his brace of Kaisers, tries hard to remember the names of all the flowers, charges seventy-five cents admission for adults, tw-enty-five cents for children, oversees a summertime staff of forty gardeners and inside help, stockpiles turf in the greenhouse to replace that worn bare as the world continues to beat a path to Jenny Butchart’s garden. He underwrites the gardens’ losses but hopes to make money soon.

The estate, registered as a one-man partnership and officially called The Butchart Gardens, has grown to a hundred and twenty-five acres from its original twenty-five, and the two-acre seed garden Jenny Butchart started on the urging of friends, proceeds going to charity, has expanded to four. And where Bob Butchart played the organ and Jenny watched from the window there is now a tearoom—crumpets and marmalade, twenty-five cents.

But keep-off-the-grass signs are still

The one sign saying “private” still remains in the flagstone at the gate entering into Jenny Butchart’s private retreat. Bob Ballantyne, a sentimental man. is keeping that plot private for reasons of his own. ★