I feel like I’ve been leading up to this post for weeks now. I got to visit the Butchart Gardens with my friend Nadya back in April, and absolutely loved it! It’s hard now to believe that we ever considered skipping it altogether – read more about that lapse in sanity here.
In the end, we did choose to visit the Butchart Gardens, and we arrived hoping to be wowed. As we paid the $30 entry fee, I couldn’t help but think of all the other things I could buy with that money. 1/3 of a one day ticket to Disney World. Dinner for two at Kobe. A one-way ticket to visit my sister in Utah. Surely no garden could be worth all that?
How happy I was to be proven wrong.
But first, a little history.
Robert Butchart, whose business was in cement manufacturing, was originally drawn to the greater Victoria area by vast supplies of limestone, one of the common ingredients in creating cement powder.He developed his estate around a generous limestone quarry at Tod Inlet, building a cement factory and a family home on the property. It was the perfect place to base his business, as cities down the West coast, from Seattle to San Francisco, rapidly expanded and had greater need for Butchart’s cement. After two years setting up shop and establishing himself in the Victoria area, he was joined by his wife Jennie.
To keep herself occupied while her husband worked all day, Jennie planted trees and flowers alongside the family home. As her ambitions grew, Robert often supplied his own factory workers to help around the garden. When at last the limestone quarry had been exhausted, Jennie took to it with her crew, determined to make something beautiful out of the desolate rocky place. She brought in tons of rich top soil, and set to work transforming the quarry into the Sunken Gardens.
As word of her gardening prowess spread, friends and strangers alike came to see the Sunken Garden. Robert Butchart, proud of his wife’s work, helped Jennie to create more themed gardens around the property. In their travels, the Butcharts collected exotic animals and plants, fitting them into their increasingly popular gardens. The property grew to include the Japanese Garden, in the place where Jennie had planted her first trees and flowers upon arrival; the Italian Garden, located on their former tennis court; and the stunning Rose Garden. Jennie played host to a variety of visitors, always serving them tea and welcoming them to the family estate, which the Butcharts had christened “Benvenuto.” In 1915 alone, she is said to have served tea to 18,000 people.
The gardens’ popularity grew over the years, maintained after Robert and Jennie’s deaths by their children and then grandchildren. It was their grandson Ian Ross who transformed the gardens into one of Victoria’s top attractions. He introduced concert series, variety shows, and even created the well-known Ross Fountain in the Sunken Garden. The tradition of family ownership continued after Ross’s death. Great-grandson Christopher took over, and introduced the summer fireworks and fountain shows that attract thousands of summer visitors. The gardens are currently owned by Christopher’s sister, Robin-Lee Clarke, who recently installed a children’s pavilion and charming carousel near the Rose Garden.
It was certainly impressive to visit the gardens and see all those years of dreaming realized, and kept alive over 100 years after Robert Butchart first arrived at his new limestone quarry. After dropping off our overnight bags at the visitor’s center, we stretched our legs and set off to explore the gardens.
We walked through a charming forested area, complete with little critter topiaries, and almost immediately stumbled across the Sunken Garden. This is probably the most-photographed part of the gardens; the image I had seen most commonly on pre-trip Instagram and Google searches.
The raised viewing area in the center of the gardens was created out of necessity, as the limestone there was of inferior quality and therefore never removed by factory workers. It definitely goes to show that a little creativity can elevate even the ugliest, most desolate of spaces.
Nadya and I walked the perimeter road along the upper part of the garden, intending to view it first from above and then descend into the heart of the Sunken Garden. Along the way, we saw beautiful cherry blossoms, romantic pink and white tulips, several animal topiaries, and more, until we reached the aforementioned Ross Fountain. Installed in 1964, Ross Fountain was created to mark the 60th anniversary of the Butchart Gardens.
The path sloped downward into British Columbia’s most-photographed garden, the limestone quarry turned sanctuary. We saw hundreds of different plants and flowers along our walk, stopping frequently to take photos of the flowers and of each other. Some of my favorite photos from the day were taken in the Sunken Garden, with its abundance of gorgeous flowers, bright colors, and masterful arrangements.
The “sunken” aspect of the garden made it all the more wonderful, with greenery and colorful flowers rising up all around us to create a haven of sorts. Just looking at the pictures again makes me smile. The Sunken Garden truly was a world of its own.
After spending a good deal of time ooohing over the beautiful Sunken Garden, we consulted our maps, and were blown away by how huge the Butchart Gardens really are. Of its 135 overall acres, 55 acres are available to the general paying public. And to think, we’d only seen about a quarter of it in the hour plus since we arrived!
Moving on, we made our way past the concert lawn, the children’s pavilion, and the fireworks viewing area, into what we thought must be the rose garden.
We cried out over a darling carousel horse, an adorable English cottage-esque building, double totem poles, and a stunning dragon fountain…or the dragon itself, anyway. The actual fountain was undergoing refurbishment, but the dragon statue had been relocated to a viewable area. Lucky for us, too! I thought the statue was pretty enough, mingled with all the spring greenery and flowers. I can’t imagine it looking any prettier, even back on its fountain base.
We descended into a lovely little garden dressed with vine-laden arches and hanging flowerpots, frankly a little confused about the whole rose garden thing. We still hadn’t seen many roses, and a directional sign told us the Rose Garden was just ahead.
Well. After doing a little more research and taking a closer look at my vacation photos, it’s painfully obvious that the roses just weren’t in bloom quite yet. See all those brown, somewhat spiky flower beds on either side of the pathways? It turns out, we had visited a couple of months too soon. The best time to see the roses in bloom is July or August…right now! So if roses are your thing, get out there and see them now!
Roses or not, we thought the Rose Garden was lovely, and could not resist taking photos of those gorgeous arches. Across the lawn, we caught a glimpse of the upcoming Italian Garden.
We passed the Sturgeon Fountain, a bronze piece cast in Florence, Italy, and then veered left to check out the Japanese Garden.
Oh my goodness. I loved the Japanese Garden. Here were all the gorgeous burnt oranges, the deep reds, the vibrant colors of fall I’d seen online and assumed were exclusive to autumnal visits. It was a world of its own, similar to the Sunken Gardens and yet completely different. I felt like a different, much younger version of myself as we practically skipped down the stairs. And when we found this stepping stone path through the pond? The nerds came out to play, quoting Labyrinth as we crossed the pond. Smell baaad!
The Japanese Garden was designed in 1906 with the assistance of Japanese landscaper Isaburo Kishida. In addition to the beautiful plants, the garden featured a traditional Torii gate, a laughing Buddha, and a gorgeous red bridge. If you do visit, make sure to leave the Japanese Garden and pay a visit to Butchart Cove. In the summer, boats take visitors out onto the water and past the remains of the Robert Butchart’s cement factory.
We returned to the gardens, climbing yet more stairs to the Star Pond and the Italian Garden. At this point, we had another hour or so planned to explore, have some lunch, and catch the next bus back to Victoria.
The Star Fountain, originally built to house Mr. Butchart’s ducks, was very pretty. The unique star shape and the lovely spring flowers that surrounded it made for some very pretty pictures. Then it was on to the Italian Garden, a relatively small space built where the Butchart tennis courts used to be. I loved the muted but bold florals, the lovely bronze statues and fountains littered about, and the beautiful views over the lawn.
Fitting with the Italian theme, gelato was available for purchase from a small walkup. This alone was exciting, because it reminded me with a jolt that my upcoming trip to Europe with Dan was, at that point in time, less than a month away! What a time to be alive.
We strolled through the piazza, admiring the pretty green buildings and a strangely sensual boar statue (why is it posed like that!?) and taking our pick of lunch spots.
We settled on The Blue Poppy Restaurant. Neither of us much wanted to pay exorbitant prices for tourist-destination food, but since we weren’t sure if we’d have time to eat once we got back downtown, we decided to get something small-yet-filling just in case. The restaurant was lovely, with big open windows leading back out to the square and plenty of fresh, flavorful food options. I had the Mediterranean Orzo Salad, while Nadya opted for the Spinach Salad. Both were surprisingly fresh and delicious, and we congratulated ourselves on this surprisingly budget-friendly lunch before heading off to the final garden of the day.
At this point, we had about twenty minutes to see the garden and catch the bus back to Victoria. Ah well. We decided to stick around, take our time, and visit the gift shop before catching a later bus instead.
I don’t regret staying later, but if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t love the Mediterranean Garden. It was so far from everything else, literally located in a parking lot, and didn’t have much to offer in terms of size or plant life. I mean, it was pretty…but after everything else we’d seen that day, the tiny parking lot garden just didn’t measure up. I took exactly two photos, and we returned to the gift shop.
There were so many things I wanted to buy here! Beautiful glass ornaments, fragrant bath and body products, seeds, prints, coffee table books, art supplies, postcards, garden accessories, fine china, you name it. One of the more gimmicky items that caught my eye was an actual Canadian Maple leaf, preserved in 24k gold and made into a Christmas tree ornament. It was delicate, it was gorgeous, and I thought it was a much more interesting souvenir than the standard keychains, magnets, snow globes, etc. Maybe I’ll buy it (and that glorious honey hand cream from The Fairmont Empress!) the next time I’m in B.C. I’m hoping that time comes soon.
By the time we left the Butchart Gardens, sans souvenirs, we were already wishing to return. The gardens are forever changing with the seasons, and I’d love to come back in the summer (hello roses), or go all out and see it lit up at Christmas time. Seriously, enough with this summer heat. Is winter here yet? I think it would be a gorgeous, romantic wintertime day trip, and it’s definitely on my radar for future trips home with Dan!
What do you think of these gorgeous gardens? Have you ever visited a spot like this? Please comment below and tell me all about it!