I think I would have gotten along great with Jennie Butchart. For starters, this visionary behind the world famous Butchart Gardens outside of Victoria was the first to admit that she knew ‘next to nothing about gardening” when she started her massive garden project. What Jennie did know, though, was that she valued beauty, and knew her way around colour and design. And she used that knowledge to create something whose sole purpose was to delight the eye. Which makes Jennie Butchart more artist than gardener, at least in my eyes, and one of many reasons why I think we would have been friends. Here are a few more.
Jennie Butchart was both smart and creative
Even though it was Jennie’s entrepreneur husband, Robert, who expanded his concrete business into a hugely successful enterprise by quarrying limestone at the Butchart property, Jennie was no slouch either when it came to smarts. A Renaissance woman of her time, she had attended the prestigious Brantford Ladies’ College in Ontario, earned a certificate in chemistry, and had also studied as an artist. She was so talented an artist in fact, that she was offered a scholarship to study art in Paris. But love intervened at the age of 18 when she met Robert, and Jennie instead followed him and his business out to Vancouver Island.
Yet even while putting her chemistry knowledge to good use analyzing limestone for her husband’s company, Jennie never forgot her love for colour and beauty. When the quarry ran out of limestone after 3 years of mining and concrete production, she was appalled at the ugliness left behind. This property was her home, too, after all, not just a mining operation.
Jennie hated ‘ugly’. So she did something about it.
Jennie looked at the now-exhausted limestone pit, abandoned cement mill and shanty town that had housed over 100 workers, and decided to replace all that ugliness with a garden. In what became arguably the world’s biggest backyard makeover, Jennie began the arduous process by hauling rich loam from other parts of the island by cartload. Load after load was dumped into the 40-foot deep quarry until there was enough earth on the floor of the pit to support plantings.
Jennie may not have been a gardener but she was hands-on and a hard worker. Starting with sweet pea plants given to her by a friend, Jennie began nurturing plants in the quarry, gradually adding in grass, annuals, and rock gardens over the years. After more than a decade of labour and love, the quarry, today known as the Sunken Garden, had flourished and spilled out onto the property. And from there Jennie’s dream for her garden only grew larger and more ambitous.
WOW FACTOR: The first glimpse of Butchart Gardens’ Sunken Garden is breathtaking, so save the surprise by looking down until you arrive at the overlook, and then look up. Ta-dah!
Jennie looked after her guests.
As word spread from friends to friends of friends, visitors began to arrive to admire Jennie’s garden, and she took on the role of hostess gladly. It was Jenny’s idea way back then to stock colourful umbrellas so that visitors could stay dry while still enjoying the gardens. That same tradition continues today, with umbrellas available on-site for guests to use should rain threaten their visit. The only difference is that today’s umbrellas are transparent, so visitors can still admire the flowers while staying protected.
FUN FACT: Jennie hosted the King and Queen of Siam (now Thailand) at Butchart Gardens in 1931 (yes, her garden was that famous!), and the royals were so impressed they invited Jennie and Robert to visit Siam in return. The Butcharts did so the following year, and stayed as the King’s guest for twelve days. This connection to the Gardens has continued for almost a century, with a visit by Thailand’s crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn in 1986, and his sister Princess Chulabhorn Walailak of Thailand in 2010.
It was Jennie’s idea to build a Tea House.
It was always Jennie’s habit to personally offer tea to guests who came to visit her gardens, but purely as a gesture of hospitality, never for profit. That’s quite something in itself, given that by 1915, it was reported that she had served over 18,000 guests! So it only made sense when she decided to build a Tea House to accommodate this tradition.
Today the tradition that Jennie started back in the early 1900s continues. In fact, afternoon tea at Butchart Gardens is one of the best ways to enhance your visit here. Plus it happens to be one of the best afternoon teas to be had on Vancouver Island (and I love afternoon tea, so this is no small compliment).
Jennie loved to travel – a LOT.
Jennie and Robert were avid, adventurous travellers, and many of the decorative details in the gardens were either brought there from abroad, or inspired by their travels, including urns from France, statues from italy, and pagodas from China.
Robert contributed rare birds, and even stocked the deep pond in the Sunken Garden with trout which he trained to come to the surface for food when he clapped. Unusual plants and flowers were also brought back to be added to the ever-growing garden (pun intended).
The exotic creatures and artifacts Jennie and Robert encountered on their world tours would eventually become a source of inspiration for their own descendants, too: the Butcharts’ great grand-daughter Robin-Lee Clarke (the current owner of the Gardens) installed the beautiful Rose Carousel on the property which features exotic hand-carved animals from all around the world.
FUN FACT: Not only was the Rose Carousel Clarke’s ‘pet project’, it also included the family pets: two of the animals on the carousel’s menagerie are Winston the family dog, and the family cat who he is ‘chasing’. It’s also the only carousel on Vancouver Island, and costs just $2 to ride.
Jennie was a social person.
You don’t personally serve tea to 18,000 guests unless you are a social person, and Jennie Butchart obviously loved to have people come to visit her home and her garden. She even named their estate Benvenuto, meaning ‘welcome’ in Italian, which pretty much sums up the entire family’s philosophy to this day. With over a million guests visiting Butchart Gardens every year, Jennie’s warm welcome has extended far beyond Vancouver Island to include guests from all around the world.
Jennie did enjoy a little privacy from time to time, too, but the only place where she ever installed a “Private” sign on the property was at the entrance to her own garden adjacent to the house. I guess even the most social of butterflies needs a garden to call their own.
Jennie was a family person.
Butchart Gardens is definitely a family affair. And not just because the current owner, Jennie’s great grand-daughter, is carrying on the family tradition of running the property. The people who work here are like family, too, with many of them working here for decades because they love the place and its people. Chef Travis Hansen, for one, has worked here for over 30 years, and even met his wife here. And if you visit the Japanese garden, you may notice a bench that is dedicated to one of the gardeners who worked here for 60 years, 40 of which were spent in this specific garden. If that’s not family, I don’t know what is.
FUN FACT: Close to the Rose Carousel, if you look up, you’ll notice a statue of a little girl with a rose, which was a recent gift given by the staff to the owner to thank her for supporting them during Covid.
So, would Jennie Butchart and I have been BFFs?
There isn’t a lot of historical information speaking to Jennie Butchart’s personality or temperament to really know whether Jennie and I would have hit it off. But there are anecdotal references that mentions she was a practical joker, a very good storyteller and that she loved a dirty joke, (which right there would have made me want to get to know her better).
We do know, however, that it was Jennie’s artistic eye, (something we have in common), her love of beauty (ditto), and her desire to share that beauty with others, that gave the world Butchart Gardens. All of which speaks to the kind of person I would definitely want to call a friend.
And by leaving the world a lush, 55-acre oasis that is consistently named one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, Jennie Butchart created a living legacy for generations to enjoy.
Not bad for someone who knew nothing about gardening.
BUTCHART GARDENS BY THE NUMBERS
Butchart Gardens includes 5 main gardens: the original Sunken Garden, Japanese garden, Rose Garden, Italian garden, and Mediterranean garden.
More than 50 full-time gardeners look after all the gardens, swapping out seasonal blooms.
Spring showcases more than 300,000 bulbs.
There are over 900 varieties of bedding plants, and 26 greenhouses on the property.
Over 1,000,000 visitors come to the Gardens every year.
There are over 280 varieties of roses in the Rose Garden, the only garden where plants are actually labelled, and one of them is named after Jennie Butchart, a hybrid red ‘tea rose’. (whatever that is: remember, I’m no gardener.)
WHEN TO VISIT
Butchart Gardens changes out their plantings throughout the year, so every season brings something different. We visited in spring and enjoyed bed after bed of tulips and daffodils in every conceivable colour. After the spring bloom is done, those 300,000 bulbs are swapped out for summer annuals, and guests can enjoy roses in bloom as well. Fall highlights the colourful maples as they change colour, and the Japanese garden is especially pretty. But Christmas may be the most magical time of all at Butchart Gardens, when tens of thousands of lights are installed throughout the property, including illuminated holiday displays depicting the 12 Days of Christmas.
For those with mobility issues, the Gardens are very accessible, and there is even an online downloadable map showing the best route for avoiding stairs.
TIP: Plan on at least 1.5 hours to visit all the gardens, double that if you are photo-obsessed. Triple that if you have Afternoon Tea. And if you want to spend even more time than that, you might want to consider multiple visits with an annual pass.
Admire the impressive dragon fountain in the Japanese Garden.
Climb the ‘mound’ in the centre of the Sunken Garden. This rock remnant was left here because it was determined to be inferior limestone and not quarried. Now it offers visitors a unique vantage point for the garden.
Visit the blue poppy garden if you are here in May/June (check the Butchart Gardens website to see when plants are in season). The original blue poppies planted here came from London’s Kew Garden, after the English explorer Captain Frederick Bailey brought back one flower from Tibet in 1913 and Jennie acquired some of those seeds.
Rub the nose of ‘Tacca’, the Butchart Boar. Like the original found in Florence, this little piggie statue is said to bring you good luck!
There’s a secret peephole through the trees that frames Tod Inlet and the wharf. But you’ll have to find it yourself, or it wouldn’t be very secret now would it?
Look for topiary creatures, some of which are close to the original limestone carts (now planted with greenery, of course). There are more around the gardens as well.
There’s a second little dragon at the top of a small waterfall in the Japanese Garden. This little guy actually went missing for several years, but ‘showed up’ recently and was re-installed.
To make visiting safer and more pleasant for all, selfie sticks are not permitted at Butchart Gardens. Ditto for drones. You’ll have to leave your pets at home, too.
DID YOU KNOW?
Butchart Gardens was named a National Historic Site in 2004. (I think Jennie would have been proud her backyard makeover made it to that list.)