A Tale of Two Victoria Gardens

Discover the roots of these two very different but equally enchanting gardens, The Butchart Gardens and the Abkhazi Garden in Victoria, B.C.

Victoria, B.C., the City of Gardens, is growing – in more ways than one.  Its population has bloomed to just under 350,000 people, mostly due to an influx of IT businesses, leading to its new nickname “Techtoria”.  Gardening has taken a huge leap too. With real estate at a premium, Victorians are planting in every conceivable space.  Boulevards, allotment gardens and front yard fruit and veggie patches are bursting at the seams with bountiful harvests and beautiful blossoms.  Before the latest gardening gold rush, there were two pioneering couples whose heritage gardens continue to delight visitors today – Robert and Jennie Butchart and Prince and Princess Abkhazi.

Blooming Big – The Butchart Gardens

There’s much more to the Butchart Gardens than a few pretty petals.  It’s the culmination of a grand vision shared by Robert Pim and Jennie Butchart.  Beginning in 1904 and nurtured during the past 100 years by their descendants, their former limestone quarry has been transformed into a world-class gardening destination.  The quarry originally provided concrete for Robert Pim Butchart’s business.  Jennie Butchart worked as the company chemist and the garden started modestly with a few roses and sweet peas around their home.  As the quarry was depleted, they began to truck in wagon loads of soil to create the Japanese Garden, which was followed by the Sunken Garden, Italian Garden and Rose Garden.

Over the years this designated Canadian Historical Site has grown to encompass over 22 hectares (55 acres) with winding pathways, sparkling fountains, lily ponds, and formal and informal plantings.  Over a million visitors a year come to see the delicate cherry blossoms in spring, rare blue poppies and multi-hued roses in summer, and the vibrant reds of the Japanese maples in the fall.  Winter brings the Magic of Christmas when the garden is illuminated with thousands of lights and skaters glide around on the outdoor rink. There are summer fireworks and open-air concerts, award-winning restaurants, boat tours on Tod Inlet and greenhouse tours in the fall. Butchart Gardens keeps growing and growing just as Robert Pim and Jennie Butchart would have wanted.

A Labour of Love – The Abkhazi Garden

Victoria Gardens The leafy entrance to the Abkhazi Garden - photo Debra Smith

The leafy entrance to the Abkhazi Garden – photo Debra Smith

Tiny but perfect, the Abkhazi Garden is a miniature wonderland. It is the creation of two people, Marjorie (Peggy) Pemberton-Carter and exiled Georgian Prince, Nicholas Abkhazi. They first met in Paris in the 1920’s but lost touch during the tumultuous events of the Second World War. They each spent time in prisoner-of-war camps, Marjorie in Shanghai and Nicholas in Germany and it would be twenty-six years before they were reunited. By that time, Marjorie had found her way to Victoria and purchased a one-acre plot of land dominated by a glacial outcrop. When a letter from Nicholas unexpectedly reached her, she agreed to meet him in New York. The meeting turned into an engagement and they returned to Victoria to begin a new life together.

 

Victoria Gardens The vista from the Abkhazi Teahouse - photo Debra Smith

The vista from the Abkhazi Teahouse – photo Debra Smith

 

For the next forty years, they worked on the garden together, planning, planting and pruning (Peggy’s favourite pastime). A California style mid-century modern house was built on top of the rocky escarpment in the centre of the site. Existing mature Garry Oak trees were underplanted with rhododendrons, masses of ferns, native bleeding heart and other shade-loving plants to create a fairyland path leading from the entrance to the sunny south lawn at the base of the glacial outcrop. Thoughtful arrangements of dark textured shrubs and silver foliage, architectural plants and a 50-foot sweep of mop-headed Agapanthus create the illusion of a long vista in this small space.  The Yangtse River path, a recreation of Peggy’s beloved Chinese landscape, leads up the outcrop, past the spot where the Prince and Princess’ ashes were scattered. The top path leads past several small pools, teeming with turtles, fish and dragonflies to the terrace of their former home. It is now the Abkhazi Garden Teahouse and Gift Shop, and an unexpected hot spot for hipsters, who enjoy the expansive views of the city and the garden on the patio. The Land Conservancy continues to nurture the garden, refining and replanting and carrying on the legacy of Victoria’s Prince and Princess Abkhazi.

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