Pacific Northwest: Butchart turns 100

British Columbia's magical gardens celebrate a birthday

From the moment you walk through the entrance of the Butchart Gardens, you know that you're in for a wonderful horticultural adventure. Beds along the path brim with seasonal color, and huge containers overflow with vibrant plants. Just beyond a tunnel of shade-loving plants, you turn a corner and there ― spread out below you like the mythical Shangri-la ― is the Sunken Garden.

This year, Butchart celebrates its 100th birthday, and the gardens have never looked better. More than a century ago, this bowl of land was a limestone quarry, its contents used to make cement for British Columbia's building boom. Eventually that resource was exhausted, and in 1904 Jennie Foster Butchart, wife of the quarry's owner, Robert Pim Butchart, started a garden. High on energy, enthusiasm, and pluck, she turned the scarred hillsides and broken rock into one of the world's most famous gardens, eventually covering 55 acres of the 130-acre estate. From now through mid-March, deciduous trees show off their elegant forms, primroses are in flower, and winter bloomers such as witch hazel and sarcococca are perfuming the air. Best of all, the gardens are so empty of tourists in winter that you'll hear the wind in the trees and the plop of water in the fountains. And if the chilly weather gets to you, pop into the Coffee Shop for a steaming cup of hot chocolate or tea.

AS THE SEASONS TURN

Five distinct garden "rooms" ― the Italian Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, the Star Pond, and the Sunken Garden ― make up the Butchart Gardens. Walkways connect them; all are lined with brilliant beds and borders that change with the seasons. You can wander at will or follow the route suggested in the brochure available at the entrance.

Spring brings more than half a million blooming bulbs, including daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips. Watch for a new cherry red tulip called 'Jennie Butchart', on display for the first time this spring. ("We are constantly on the hunt for what's new and improved," says horticultural director Rick Los.) New leaves hover like green lace in the tops of the deciduous trees, and ornamental cherries are blooming.

In summer, beautiful blooms fill the rose garden, while elsewhere, brilliant annuals grow in grand sweeps. Just after dark on Saturdays from July 3 through September 4, fireworks light up the night sky over the gardens.

In October, foliage on the century-old maples of the Japanese Garden turns rich reds and golds, while chrysanthemums and asters make great displays throughout. And in December, the gardens shimmer with colored lights.

No matter when you visit, you can gather planting ideas to use in your own garden. If you have questions about plant identification, cultivation, or availability of varieties on display, stop at the Plant Identification Centre within the old main residence building as you leave the Italian Garden.

Butchart Gardens are open daily from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. through February (later in spring and summer). Admission is $14 Canadian (about $11 U.S.) through mid-March.

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