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Roots of a Grand Canadian Garden : From a gaping limestone quarry near Victoria, B.C., the Butcharts created a showplace of blooms.

June 28, 1992|JUDITH MORGAN

An expedient cover-up that grew into a passionate hobby: That's how the world-renowned Butchart Gardens got their start in 1904.

Basically what happened was this: Robert Pimm Butchart--a Canadian cement-making baron--dug a horrendous hole on the outskirts of the British Columbia capital of Victoria.

And Jenny Butchart filled it in.

The resulting 50 acres attract more than a million visitors a year to the handsome waterfront estate 13 miles from downtown Victoria.

Mr. Butchart gouged the immense limestone quarry to make cement. When the pit was abandoned, his wife cringed at the sight and ordered soil to be brought in by horse cart and dumped over the cliffs. Then she started planting.

Her first effort--the Sunken Garden--is still the showplace, a great, green crater more than 50 feet deep and awash with waves of bright colors that flow with the seasons. Stone staircases and winding paths lead past dense evergreens called arborvitae, cylindrical trees that bear an eerie resemblance to the tall, gray kiln that looms on the horizon, a remnant of the site's 19th-Century quarrying days.

I was there in the spring when the garden was a paint pot of red and gold and dusky blue: 100 varieties of tulips set in carpets of forget-me-not; massed daffodils and hyacinths. A rocky outcropping, draped with Virginia creeper and ivy, rises near the center of the Sunken Garden like the overgrown ruins of a medieval fortress.

Beyond a screen of poplars and willows is a lake that was formed in a particularly deep pocket of limestone. Pink and white azaleas and dwarf Japanese maples hug its banks.

The splash of waterfalls and the drone of bees were the only sounds along the paths when I walked through--except for occasional murmurs from an Irish couple, an Indonesian family and a group of Japanese students wearing University of British Columbia sweat shirts.

Old quarry carts were heaped with English daisies and blushing anemones. Western red cedars, their corded bark glimmering in the sun, stood on the rim like giant sentinels, trading the duty--in some stretches--with Douglas fir.

The gardens are well laid out for visitors, and free guides are available in such tongues as Ukrainian, Polish, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Greek, Japanese, German, Danish and Hebrew. Free plastic umbrellas sprout from a bin near the entrance. Benches of stone and teak are conveniently placed for resting and views. Even paper towel receptacles in the ladies room are topped with pots of blue phlox.

From their worldwide travels, the Butcharts brought back exotic seeds, bulbs and cuttings for the Sunken Garden as well as for later additions: the Italian Garden, the Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden, which is marked by a graceful torii gate. These they blended with such Pacific Northwest natives as dogwood.

In the summertime you can tour the garden by night. Concerts are staged in July and August; fireworks are part of the spectacle. But the illumination of the gardens by hundreds of tiny, hidden lights is what most night visitors remember.

Butchart is a floral masterwork, but Victoria, itself, is no slouch. Nestled on the sheltered southern tip of Vancouver Island, the very English city prides itself on a mild climate that encourages flowers all year long. From June to September, the city's old-fashioned lampposts are decorated with 1,000 hanging baskets of blooms. Blue cascades of lobelia mix with red geraniums and petunias.

Each February, the city holds a Flower Count Week when residents count the number of blooms in their yards and call in totals to the official Flower Count Headquarters.

The 1992 total was 154,580,731 flowers. Victoria takes pleasure in making the count while most of Canada is still shivering, a waitress told me at the Sticky Wicket pub. "We like to get the word to Ottawa and Toronto while they still have snow on the ground," she said.

For the record, Victoria's count does not include the flowers at Butchart Gardens, where staffers stubbornly stonewall if you try to pry out a figure.

Suffice it to say, there are plenty of bulbs and shrubs and flowering plants to keep 45 full-time gardeners busy all year long.

The Butchart Gardens are at Tod Inlet, 13 miles north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Gates open daily at 9 a.m. Gardens illuminated nightly through Sept. 15; gates open until 10:30 p.m. Fireworks on Saturday nights in summer. Admission prices through the high season (April through late September or early October): adults, about $8.75; ages 13-17, $4.60; ages 5-12, $1; under 5 free. For more information, contact Butchart Gardens, Box 4010, Victoria, B.C. V8X 3X4, Canada, (604) 652-4422.

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