Flowers from cement: The Butchart Gardens

The Butchart Gardens in 1937, with former quarry wall visible in the background © Library and Archives Canada

For the Week of Monday, October 12, 2020. 

On October 16, 1953, the Daily Colonist displayed an advertisement for the Butchart Gardens which would be “dramatically illuminated” during their autumn week.

In 1866, Jennie Foster Kennedy, founder of the Butchart Gardens, was born in Toronto, Ontario. Raised in Owen Sound, she attended Brantford Young Ladies’ College, where she excelled in art and science, earning a chemist’s certificate. She married cement producer Robert Pim Butchart in 1884 and, in 1903, they moved to British Columbia because of his interest in its rich limestone deposits. Robert established a cement works and limestone quarry at Tod Inlet, employing Jennie as the company’s chemist.

The area’s mild climate and Jennie Butchart’s creative inclinations inspired her to cultivate a garden on the grounds of the Butchart family estate. She benefitted from the contributions of celebrated artists, gardeners, and landscapers at Tod Inlet. Between 1912 and 1921 she undertook her most ambitious project, the Sunken Garden, which beautified the exhausted quarry’s barren landscape. 

With the addition of walkways and staircases throughout the gardens, the public was welcome to visit, free of charge. Visitors came to the estate by car along a dirt road, by boat to a dock at the base of the Japanese Garden, and by train, aboard the BC Electric Railway. 

In 1939, the Butcharts gifted the estate to their grandson, Robert Ian Ross. Upon his return from military service during the Second World War, Ross revitalized the estate, turning it into the self-sustaining commercial enterprise that his daughter, Robin-Lee Clarke, continues to operate today.  

With seven gardens, each governed by an individual design theme, the Butchart Gardens exemplifies Edwardian gardening style, characterized by informal plantings contrasting with formal architectural features. Additionally, the use of the Victorian bedding-out system—raising flowers to maturity in greenhouses and then transplanting them into the gardens—keeps the estate in constant bloom from March to October. Over More than a1 million bedding plants of 900 different varieties are used annually.

The Butchart Gardens is a designated national historic site. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, cemeteries, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

Related links

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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