Vancouver Island Gardens
|Abkhazi Garden, Victoria; photo by Leslie Forsberg|
Shaping the glories of leaf and branch, blossom and scent is among humankind’s finest avocations, and Vancouver Island stands high among the garden capitals of the world.
“The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway,” observes sustainability writer Michael Pollan. Avid gardeners have been doing just that on Vancouver Island for more than a century, and the results honour both the human horticultural impulse and the natural blessings of this special place. Island gardens range from one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions to a remote rainforest homestead rarely reached by visitors. There are naturalistic gardens carved into oak prairie; tidy English-style estates with broad lawns; specimen gardens with unusual plants from around the world. The wide spectrum is wondrous.
Let’s start with the most famous of all. Butchart Gardens, a half-hour north of Victoria, may well be the best-known garden on earth. (Its only real competition is Louis XIVth’s Versaille, near Paris.) Crowds flock here—1 million visitors a year--to enjoy a pioneer’s timeless legacy. Jennie Butchart began to transform her husband’s rock quarry into gardens in 1904, a project that blossomed over the years into a 55-acre complex with numerous theme gardens (Japanese and Mediterranean, for instance) sequestered among ranks of rhododendrons, tidy flower beds, exotic specimen plants and manicured lawns bordered by sculpted paths. Colors, shapes and fragrances vie for visitor attention, and what was once a rugged quarry landscape today lends topographic interest.
As throughout the Island’s lowlands, garden season stretches 12 months at Butchart, with our marine temperate climate enabling winter-hardy jasmines to bloom in January, yielding to late winter’s bewitchingly-fragrant witch hazels and hyacinths; succeeded by daffodils and tulips, then iris and azaleas, then on into the glorious bursts of summer annuals and perennials. In autumn, deciduous leaf-change succeeds late bloomers such as chrysanthemums, and by December the cycle begins to repeat.
The vast majority of visitors come to Butchart in summer, but every month is worthwhile here. Such is the case, but more subtly so, at another labor-of-love garden right in Victoria. Nicholas and Peggy Abkhazi were World War II refugees who settled in BC’s capital on an oak-studded slope and slowly began to turn their hillside into a carefully shaped, naturalistic garden beneath the oaks and firs. While Butchart is the epitome of the formal, composed garden, the Abkhazis’ gem is a more natural creation that Peggy likened to a Chinese scroll painting. Exotic rhododendrons, azaleas, bamboo and other ornamental plants blend with the existing landscape to comprise a unified whole whose elegant lines lead the eye through graceful swales, up gnarled rock outcrops and past knobby heritage oak trunks.
Nearby, atop Rockland Hill, Government House (residence of the royal family when they are in town) holds formal English cottage gardens with extensive rose plantings, a lily pond and a large Garry oak preserve. It’s free to the public during daylight hours.
North of Nanaimo, Milner Gardens is a 20th century estate whose 70 acres were fashioned into a formal garden by an expatriate British aristocrat, Veronica Milner. Its shoreline location in Qualicum Beach holds one of the area’s last remaining old-growth Douglas-fir groves; amid that, Milner laid out verdant lawns and flower beds. The vista across the water to the mainland’s snowcapped Coast Range peaks is a special treat here.
A completely different experience awaits visitors to Tofino Botanical Gardens on the island’s West Coast. Carved into the rainforest along Clayoquot Sound, this is a collection of specimen plants, vegetables and flowers meant to convey the potential and diversity of the temperate maritime climate and help visitors appreciate the marvels of such ecosystems around the world. Here, 10-foot Himalayan lilies seek the sun beneath old-growth Sitka spruces; native salal blooms alongside the massive dark-green, toothy leaves of Chilean gunnera; Japanese decorative bananas lend a tropical air. Vegetable, annual flower and herb gardens offer examples of more deliberate horticultural efforts. A huge hit with Tofino visitors, TBG takes every opportunity to prosecute its real mission, encouraging conservation of temperate maritime ecosystems everywhere, and helping people understand all the botanical wonders we derive from them.
Even more novel than TBG is Cougar Annie’s Garden, a once-abandoned homestead built by early 20th-century pioneer Ada Annie Lawson starting in 1915. Here, in a remote corner of Clayoquot Sound, Annie grew and sold rhododendrons, azaleas and other nursery plants, shipping them out on the coastal mail boat that made semi-weekly calls to her cove. Day trip excursions from Tofino now bring adventurous travelers here, after traversing the channels and passages of Clayoquot Sound and keeping their eyes open for whales, sea lions and other wildlife.
More than a dozen other gardens big and small join with these to form the Vancouver Island Garden Trail (www.vancouverislandgardentrail.com), a consortium of horticultural attractions. Penfold Farm, for example, is a small inn near Nanaimo with a lovely patch of rare heirloom fragrant roses; Sooke Harbour House is a world-famous inn west of Victoria whose grounds are devoted to a massive kitchen garden that supplies many of the restaurant’s culinary ingredients.
What Cougar Annie, Jennie Butchart, Veronica Milner and all the other many Island gardeners have discovered is that our climate is uniquely suited to horticultural variety. Ocean-bred air currents fend off winter cold from the north, as do the Coast Range peaks eastward, and hard freezes are rare. Thus, subtropical ornamentals such as bananas and palms can thrive here. Though summer warmth builds significantly only in a few locales, such as the Cowichan Valley, almost all the island receives sufficient sun May through August for surprising success with warm-weather plants—sunflowers grow each year at Tofino Botanical Garden. The climate is often likened to southern England, though the West Coast receives a lot more rain than England; the east coast, less.
While it’s wonderful to visit these horticultural masterpieces and enjoy their sheer aesthetic appeal, their hue and scent, shape and grace, clearly all the gardeners who crafted them would want us to reflect on the unique home that nurtures these gardens. Our Island air, water, soil and light are gifts of the planet—our gardens are among its finest gems.
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
|Saturna Grasslands Photo: Boomer Jerritt|
The Gulf Islands are no ordinary island chain. These lovely retreats rest gently in the Salish Sea east of Vancouver Island, and have long been havens for artists, musicians, artisan food producers and writers—refugees from the frenzy of modern life. Historically, they were also havens for earlier sorts of refugees, such as escaped slaves from the United States who settled on Salt Spring. Washed by mild sea breezes, decorated by amber-trunked arbutus leaning out from rocky headlands, with charming seaside villages and verdant pastures tucked into protected valleys, they are geographic and cultural delights.
They are like no other islands anywhere—so it makes sense that Gulf Islands National Park Reserve is not a traditional national park, either. One of Canada’s newest parks was formed in 2003 from a quilt of existing regional and provincial parks, conservation properties bought by the B.C. and Canadian governments, and private parcels donated by preservation-minded families. GINPR was specifically created to preserve a distinct landscape, what Parks Canada calls “Strait of Georgia lowlands.”The park ranges from lovely sand beaches on undeveloped islands to lofty viewpoints atop the highest points in the major islands. Tall Douglas-firs shade huckleberry patches, and minks prowl its beaches for small fish in tidepools. The park’s 36 square kilometers of land includes 15 islands, numerous islets and skerries, and 26 square kilometers of underwater preserve. Some of the GINPR parcels are well-known and long-loved by island visitors, such as South Pender Island’s Mount Norman viewpoint. Some have been little-known until the park was formed, and offer not only unique places but unique stories.
Russell Island, for example, just south of Salt Spring, is the site of a heritage homestead established in the early 20th century by a Hawaiian immigrant to BC, Maria Mahoi, who built a home here, farmed and raised 13 children. Her many descendants, still Island residents, now are park interpreters during the summer, taking turns to live on the island for a few weeks, tend the property and greet visitors who kayak down from Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring.
Sidney Island, opposite the town of Sidney on the main Island, offers another nearby-yet-remote destination in the park. Just a kilometer offshore, Sidney Spit’s long sandy beach is a popular summer goal for picnickers who avail themselves of day-trip excursions offered by a local tour company. A visit here is like a journey in both time and place—back to a quieter era, and south to a subtropical beach.
GINPR headquarters are just outside Sidney, as is the park’s biggest campground, McDonald. For more information visit www.pc.gc.ca.
Vancouver Island Trains
Railroads have played a key role in Canada’s history, and still do. Myriad are the lines that hauled coal and timber from mountain or mine to port or factory, or people and goods from town to town, here on the island as much as anywhere. Though rail trips are no longer as numerous or as conspicuous as a century ago, Vancouver Island is among the places where visitors find rail travel is still enjoyable—both in practical and aesthetic terms.
The key route on the Island is the Victoria-to-Courtenay itinerary operated by VIA Rail, Canada’s national rail company. Trains depart Victoria daily in the morning, reach Courtenay at lunchtime, and return southbound in the afternoon. The journey follows the route of the historic Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railroad that once ferried coal and timber back and forth between the capital and the Harbour City; its terminus is the lovely Comox Valley whose bike riding, skiing, golf and hiking opportunities make it one of Canada’s recreation capitals. Along the way the train passes through or near many of the visitor destinations on the Island’s Strait of Georgia coast, including the Cowichan Valley, Chemainus, Nanaimo and Parksville/Qualicum Beach.
Today, passengers riding the E&N Railiner marvel at vistas of deep forests by the tracks. They thrill as the train crosses high trestles, with tumbling mountain rivers far below, and burrows beneath mountain ridges in tunnels. They watch for eagles flying past the comfortable railcars, and admire the views of distant snowcapped peaks, on the Island and the mainland. Sparkling waters glimmer in the sun; dairy cows graze in tidy pastures. For more information on the Victoria-Courtenay train visit www.viarail.ca.
History also lives on in the form of two heritage trains that ply short, tourist routes on the Island. The Alberni Pacific Railway is a historic steam train that carries visitors from a 1912 Canadian Pacific station in Port Alberni to the McLean Mill National Historic Site, a restored lumber mill. A 1929 Baldwin locomotive that once hauled logs now pulls the passenger cars up the valley and back, 35 minutes each way, Thursday through Sunday in summer and on holidays and special occasions the rest of the year; visit www.alberniheritage.com.
Duncan’s BC Forest Discovery Centre operates passenger cars pulled by historic locomotives along a 3-kilometer route north of Duncan during summer visitor months. Trains run every half-hour June 1 through Labour Day, and on holidays and special occasions the rest of the year. For information, visit www.discoveryforest.com.
Favorite Spring Activities in the Vancouver Island Region.
For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans and our staff, what their FAVORITE Spring Activities are in the Vancouver Island Region.
Here are their Top Ten...
- Golfing anywhere on Vancouver Island
- Walking around the many beautiful Gardens on the Garden Trail
- Taking the little ferry to explore Newcastle Island.
- Visiting Qualicum Beach for a long walk on the beach
- Heading to the West Coast to check out the spring surf, have a chili cheese dog at Ukee Dog then a walk on the Wild Pacific Trail
- Spring Skiing on Mount Washington
- The opening of the Coombs Market, seeing the Goats on the Roof
- Staying at the Wharfhouse on Quadra Island, walking Rebecca Spit
- Hiking and taking photos of the amazing Vancouver Island Scenery
- The opening of the Salt Spring Island Market
|Photo:Coombs Market - Goats on the Roof - Boomer Jerritt|
For more information about things to do on Vancouver Island, visit www.vancouverisland.travel
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