When people think of Victoria. British Columbia, they immediately think of Butchart Gardens. It may be the biggest horticultural attraction in Victoria, possibly even in the entire province of British Columbia, but it’s not the only game in town.
On our recent University of Victoria college tour with daughter #1 we visited Finnerty Gardens right on campus. From their web site I knew that:
One of Canada's best collections of rhododendrons is on display at Finnerty Gardens on the University of Victoria grounds.
The garden contains over 4,000 different trees and shrubs with more than 1,500 rhododendron and azalea plants, including 200 collected rhododendron species, and a spectacular range of companion plants artistically displayed on a 2.6 hectare (6.5 acre) site at the southwest corner of UVic’s campus.
Complementing the plant life are three tranquil ponds, an inviting network of winding paths and dozens of benches, each with its own distinctive view of the gardens' ever-changing splendour.(1)
But I was not prepared for the spectacular beauty we would find.
Our visit had a very auspicious beginning. Even before we entered Finnerty Gardens (free admission seven days a week; free parking on Sundays) we found these Pacific madrones (Arbutus menziesii) in full bloom right in the parking lot. I was so excited, I took more photos than I realized, but to me the combination of the peeling reddish bark and bell-shaped white flowers is breathtaking.
Arbutus flowers are similar to manzanita (Arctostaphylos) flowers. Both genera are in the heather family (Ericaceae).
The main entrance to Finnerty Gardens is at the Interfaith Chapel on the southwestern edge of campus. Parking is in lot 6 off Ring Road.
Here is some history on the gardens as per one of the interpretive signs:
Right after you walk through the gate you find yourself in a different world. At 6½ acres the gardens aren’t excessively large, but the criss-crossing trails create the illusion that you could easily get lost in this forest wonderland. Wherever I looked, I found something worth photographing.
White skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis)
I’m sure Finnerty Gardens is a great place to visit at any time of year but spring has got all the other seasons beat when it comes to color.
I felt so lucky that our trip coincided with the peak of the spring bloom.
Much of the color is from the garden’s world-class collection of rhododendrons. Since rhododendrons are hard to grow in the Sacramento Valley and you don’t see them all that often, I consider them somewhat exotic. I had certainly never experienced such a profusion of rhododendrons in such a riot of colors. And I learned a lot of interesting facts I’d never known.
There are over 1,000 different species in the genus Rhododendron and countless named cultivars. Most are native to Asia but some are native to the U.S., notably the great laurel (Rhododendron maximum) found in eastern North America and the Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) found in western North America.
If you’re like me, you’ll probably wonder how azaleas fit into this. Azaleas are actually rhododendrons, too. Here is an article you might find of interest. It mentions the rule of thumb I learned at the Abkhazi Garden in Victoria (the garden we visited after Finnerty Gardens): true rhododendrons have ten stamens while azaleas have five or seven. But all of them are in the genus Rhododendron.
Many rhododendrons at Finnerty Gardens weren’t labeled. Some were, like this Rhododendron basilicum:
This is one of the big-leaf species sought after by collectors.
The flowers of Rhododendron basilicum are truly spectacular, not so much because of their color, but because of their shape and markings.
Another white-flowering species that was labeled, Rhododendron bureavii:
And my favorite among the red-flowering rhodies, a hybrid called ‘Malahat’:
While the rhododendrons took front and center stage, they weren’t the only players. There were flowering cherries…
…mahonias (Mahonia × media ‘Charity’ in this case)…
…woody spurges (Euphorbia sp.) and Lenten roses (Helleborus sp.)…
…and paperbark maples (Acer griseum):
But the rhododendrons were never far away:
Rivaling the rhododendrons in flower power were the many flowering cherries…
This white-flowering cherry is Prunus serrulata ‘Shirofugen’:
More cherry tapestries, any of which I think would look fantastic as a large print on the wall:
But Finnerty Gardens has more than just trees and shrubs. The eastern third of the garden is more open, and that’s where I encountered the kinds of large-leaved perennials I forever associate with the Pacific Northwest. I have no idea what these are (no label), but they look primal—small-scale versions of what I imagine herbivorous dinosaurs munched on.
More water-loving perennials I would not be able to grow, at least not easily:
Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) – confirmation needed
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Variegated Pieris japonica
After being distracted by other plants, my eyes eventually jumped back to the rhododendrons:
I had almost given up hope of finding any bamboo when I spotted this small but exceedingly pretty grove of Phyllostachys bambusoides:
I’ll end this lengthy post with a photo I took at the entrance as we were leaving. It’s my favorite close-up at Finnerty Garden. I would never have known what tree this was if it didn’t have a few flowers that were already open. Want to venture a guess?
The answer: a pink-flowering dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Rubra’).
Through sheer luck, the timing of our visit to Finnerty Gardens turned out to be perfect. Daughter #1 will start as a year 1 student at the University of Victoria this coming September. I can’t wait to go back then to see what the garden is like in early fall.