Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC

With almost a million visitors a year, Butchart Gardens is the most popular botanical garden in all of North America. Talk to friends and relatives, and you’ll be surprised by how many of them have been there, even if it was a long time ago. Some of the infrastructure may have been upgraded (like the gift store and the coffee shop) and a few attractions may have been added (like the Rose Carousel) but the gardens themselves have most likely changed very little. With good reason. Why mess with success?


When Butchart Gardens was started in 1904, it merely reflected the tastes of the time, ranging from the timidly playful to the rigidly formal. Today it seems like a living time capsule from a bygone era overlaid by a more-is-more aesthetic that seems to know no bounds.

Like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Butchart Gardens churns out one treat after another after another. Once you’ve started, you can’t stop. You go from one horticultural confection to the next, and even when you’ve reached the saturation point and your stomach starts to roil, your feet carry you forward as if they’re detached from your brain.

And if you feel strangely unsatisfied in the end, you don’t dare say a word because it would seem rude not to love Butchart Gardens. Not when all you hear around you are swooning voices exclaiming how pretty everything is, how precious, how darling.

Look beyond the frilly flowers in preternaturally vibrant colors, though, and you’ll find a backbone of trees, shrubs and perennials that is surprisingly exciting all on its own. I saw foliage and texture combinations that were downright spectactular. The hardscape—paths, walls, rocks, etc.—is masterfully crafted and precisely implemented. And underlying it all is a corporate commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship. I wonder how many of the 1,000,000 visitors that come here every year see and know that?


What is now Butchart Gardens began to take shape in 1904 when Jennie Butchart, the wife of wealthy cement factory owner Robert Butchart, established several formal gardens around her residence, now the Dining Room Restaurant and administrative offices. One of these gardens was the Japanese Garden, started in 1907.

When the limestone deposits in the nearby quarry were exhausted—limestone being a fundamental ingredient in the Portland cement the Butchart factory was making—Jennie Butchart had the brilliant idea of converting the pit into a sunken garden. Begun in 1909 and completed in 1921, the Sunken Garden is still the centerpiece of the estate.

Reputation of the Butchart’s spectacular gardens spread early, and in 1915—six years before the Sunken Garden was even completed—they already had 18,000 visitors.

Other gardens were added later on, including the Italian Garden (1926) and the Rose Garden (1929).

In 1939, Jennie and Robert Butchart transferred ownership of the gardens to their then 21-year-old grandson Ross who was involved in the operation until his death in 1997. Today, Butchart Gardens is still family-owned and run by great-granddaughter Robin-Lee Clarke.

In 2004, Butchart Gardens was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.


Pond adjacent to the parking lot

Now that you know the basic story, let’s take a walk through Butchart Gardens.


Large bowl of succulents near the garden entrance—with one exception the only succulents I saw at Butchart Gardens


Hydrangeas exhibiting this level of perfection may be common in the Pacific Northwest, but to me they’re as exotic as orchids


This viewing window next to the Blue Poppy Restaurant attracted a great deal of attention from visitors


Floral display inside the viewing window


I’m sure this gardener was aiming for the plants but in this photo it looks like he’s watering the pavement


And the assault on the senses begins…


Wax begonias (Begonia × semperflorens-cultorum) and some sort of Alternanthera


View of the former Butchart residence, now the Dining Room Restaurant


Entrance to the Dining Room Restaurant


I quite liked this muted color combination


Similar combination with reddish-pink begonias


This patio featuring hanging baskets was particularly popular. I’m sorry to say that all I could muster was a lackluster shrug. To each his own.


These combinations…


…and this one are more to my liking


This combination fires on all cylinders. The glaucous hosta on the left is the perfect foil for the sizzling Impatiens omeiana on the right.

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Approach to the Rose Garden (left) and one of many garbage cans (right), appropriately bedecked with flowering annuals


Throngs of people in the Rose Garden


Even my cynical heart softened when I saw these arches


Yes, they are beautiful


Every square inch is filled with plants


Stately Inula hookeri


Red lacquered torii gate marking the entrance to the Japanese Garden


I escaped to the Japanese Garden to take a breather, but as you can see…


…it wasn’t exactly a haven of solitude


This family found a quiet spot


Stone lanterns…


…are my favorite elements in a Japanese Garden


This lantern was the quirkiest design I’ve ever seen. It looked more like a prop from a Hänsel and Gretel movie.


The other entrance to the Japanese Garden, near the wharf on Tod Inlet


Italian Garden

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Italian Garden


This color combination made me crave sherbet


Pond in the Italian Garden


Flowering water lily


I saw several of these water bowls for dogs. They reminded me of Japanese water basins.


Formal flower border and perfectly manicured lawn

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Two arrangements I really liked. The gardener statue, not so much. If it’s up your alley, it can be yours for $5,800.


Alocasia ‘Stingray’. I appreciated the touch of the exotic amidst all the flowering annuals.


I was surprised to see tapeworm plant (Homalocladium platycladum) in quite a few combinations. I think it’s a criminally underused gem.


The gift store sells seeds packaged right at the garden. You can find the same selection in their online store.


Another foliage combination I thought was spectacular


Deceptively simple combination, but oh so beautiful

Now we’re at the Sunken Garden, the heart of Butchart Gardens and once an abandoned limestone quarry. The transformation began in 1909 and was completed in 1921. Mountains of rock debris were cleared from the site and later reused to create the central mound in the Sunken Garden as well as for the base and edging of flower beds. Countless tons of topsoil were brought in from neighboring farms on horse-drawn carts. A lake was created in a particularly deep portion of the quarry. Jennie Butchart had herself lowered over the side of the quarry walls so she could tuck ivy into crevices in order to hide the grim look of the gray rock. And finally plants of every description—trees, shrubs, perennials, biennials and annuals—were added in great profusion. Historical photographs show that the Sunken Garden has changed very little since the early days.


Entrance to the Sunken Garden overlook


The Sunken Garden in all its glory















At the far end of the Sunken Garden is the Ross Fountain. It was installed in 1964 under the direction of the Butcharts’ grandson Ian Ross. At night it is illuminated in a rainbow of colors.



I like this neutral green foreground…


…but I bet most photos are taken from this spot, with flowering geraniums in the frame

Now we’re leaving the Sunken Garden behind and continuing on towards the Rose Carousel and Children’s Pavilion (see map here).


I have no idea what tree this is, but it was beautiful backlit by the sun


The inclusion of elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) was a nice touch


The surprising element here is Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’


Plantings near the Rose Carousel and Children’s Pavilion


Color-coordinated fire hydrant

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LEFT: Acacia pravissima  RIGHT: Alocasia × amazonica


Alocasia × amazonica next to the Rose Carousel


View from the other side. As you can see, this combination really captured my attention.


Day lilies and spiny bear’s breeches (Acanthus spinosus)


Concert Lawn

When we left Butchart Gardens I felt exhausted—much like I feel after spending too much time in a museum or watching too much reality TV. The relentless parade of flowers in every color of the rainbow simply was too much for me.

But in the end it doesn’t matter what I think. Everybody walks away with their own impressions based on their personal likes and dislikes. And even if you don’t love the riot of flowers, you cannot help but admire the epic effort behind it all. I’m talking not just about the creation of the original gardens, but also about the monumental effort required to maintain them, to keep them looking perfect year in and year out. With 50 full-time gardeners and 26 production greenhouses containing 1,000,000 plants, Butchart Gardens is definitely a well-oiled machinery.

It’s easy to see why Butchart Gardens is sometimes compared to Disneyland. Both are precisely controlled environments where nothing is out of place and nothing is left to chance. Personally, I like my garden to have an element of surprise. I don’t want to be in control of everything, I want my plants to do their own thing. But I don’t think this approach works very well when you have 55 acres to keep up.

I did wonder, though, if the gardeners ever feel mischievous and toy with the idea of putting their own twist on what they’re doing, for example sneaking in plants that may not be on the approved list (if there is such a thing) or substituting yet another wax begonia with something a little more odd and daring.

The biggest mystery about Butchart Gardens—and Victoria in general—was the dearth of succulents. The only succulents I saw at Butchart Gardens were that large shallow bowl I showed you earlier in this post as well as a stand of Yucca rostrata I spotted as we were exiting the parking lot (unfortunately I was not able to stop and photograph them). The climate in Victoria (zone 9a) is certainly mild enough for succulents, and its annual precipitation of 36.5 inches (926 mm) is even a tad less than in Portland, OR where many succulents thrive. In Victoria’s gentle coastal climate, succulents that don’t like high heat, such as aeoniums and echeverias, should do well and would fit in with the formal plantings of Butchart Gardens. I imagine even the rather finicky spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla) would like it here. So where are they?


The only souvenir I bought at Butchart Gardens was a package of Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis baileyi) seeds. Our visit was too late in the year to see this rare perennial in bloom, but after having seen an entire area dedicated to it at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, BC, I couldn’t resist. Since it prefers cool, moist summers, I’m not sure it will ever amount to much in Davis, but I will give it a try.


“Rhododendronpark Bremen 20090513 263” by Syker Fotograf - Own work. Licensed under GPL via Wikimedia Commons.

The employee at the Butchart Gardens Gift Store carefully placed my seed package inside a plastic bag, sealed it with a special customs sticker, and reminded me to present the bag to the U.S. customs officials when crossing back into the U.S. It continues to amaze me how much bureaucracy is involved in bringing in something as basic as seeds. Let’s not even talk about importing live plants; those hurdles are virtually impossible to overcome for folks like me who aren’t in the trade and don’t have the required permits.



2015 Pacific Northwest trip index


  1. You did a masterful job full of kindness in your introduction. The first time I saw the place I fell in love with it. The second time I was turned off by it, it had lost its charm ... seemed too commercialized and too much formalized color and tidiness, as you say, too controlled. The third time, though not in person but reading through your post, I understood why. It's the people. Too, too many. I am very glad you are honest about your opinions and post them. Now I don't feel so bad about not liking it 100%.

    I think the lack of succulents reflects its age. This is a garden of the last century up until the 1980s perhaps before succulents became popular. It has remained true to its origin. And of this I highly approve.

    One of my most favorite gardens around here is moving around its old trees and camellias, removing some things to plant new 'natives' and edibles and other plants needing less water. I hate it. I can see that elsewhere. What I cannot see are venerable oaks, borders with carefully blended bulbs and seasonal annuals and roses with underplants. Gosh. A soapbox. Off. I do like it that Butchart is remaining true to its origins even though I may not like it!

    1. You bring up an excellent point. The last thing we need is for every place to be the same.

      I do agree with you: Butchart Garden is rooted in the Victorian Age, and there's no need for it to look like a contemporary garden. I need to learn to appreciate things how they are instead of looking for ways to change them.

  2. I visited Butchart only once, on a drizzly October day. There were certainly other visitors, but we saw no more than a few at a time and often none. I enjoyed the flowers and the way they brightened a very gray day but can imagine the sensory overload of crowded paths, bright sunshine and brilliant flowers at every turn - the eye does need to rest to appreciate any picture!
    Your analogy to Disneyland is very apt. Baskets of clear umbrellas were provided for guests to enable a pleasant walk in the light rain. I've wanted to visit Butchart in other seasons, but I think I will cross mid-summer off the list! Thank you for sharing.

    1. I was so hoping for overcast, even drizzly weather. People walking through Butchart Gardens holding clear umbrellas would have made for a great photo.

      The large number of people during our visit did spoil my enjoyment a bit. Instead of focusing on the plants, I had to pay attention to other visitors so I wouldn't run into them (or they into me) as I was taking pictures.

  3. I have been there but have no memory of it--I was three. I like the over-the-top color. I think I would love it in person--but not the crowds of people!

    Re the $5,900 statue--I could just spray myself bronze and stand still a while and save the $5,900...

    1. The thought of you standing there like that statue made me laugh :-).

  4. It definitely has a Disneyland-like quality, although I understand that even Disneyland has broken free of its former reliance on color-coordinated bedding plants. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to get a place like Butchart Gardens to shift from historical practice? Even if someone had the vision and drive to do that, it would take tremendous political acumen to get the interested parties on board. The bones of the place are impressive as is the work that goes into maintaining it. If I ever find myself up that way (and I hope that'll happen one day), I'll make a point of seeing it even if it doesn't meet my current expectations of what makes a remarkable garden.

    1. I'm sure there is huge pressure NOT to change the formula. It's like your favorite restaurant that you've gone to for years because their food is so consistent. If all of a sudden they changed the recipe for your favorite dish, you wouldn't be happy either. That's how I look at it.

  5. It's a very well tended to garden, fantastic work for those who maintain it! However also looks tad too manicured? Not so sure about the floral abundance but might be more fun person. Very strange about the lack of succulents...

    1. It's manicured to perfection. That, in itself, deserves respect. It's not easy to keep a huge garden look good all the time.

  6. I visited in 2003 I think, but it was mid September on a weekday and as I recall the crowds were not too dreadful. I imagine I have photos some where-it would be interesting to look at them. Though not a fan of personally of Victorian style bedding out schemes, I know I enjoyed this garden and I guess one of the benefits of the over-the top annual color is that it's accessible for non-gardeners or very casual gardeners who may not 'get' a place like The R Bancroft .I would go again if was up that way , but with a very strategic date and day visitation plan !

    1. Yes, this is the kind of garden you can take your whole family to and even non-gardeners will find it pretty. Plus, there's places to eat, a gift shop, a carousel, etc. etc.

  7. Still in the same family? I had no idea. Excellent post!

    Your question about succulents is an interesting one. It wouldn't ever have occurred to me to wonder why they weren't part of the planting scheme. Since there are so many other plants that are traditional there, why introduce the trendy? Why mess with the formula? Why try to confuse Canada with California? (I don't answer the questions, I just ask them...).

    1. Good points. I'm definitely guilty of applying my California sensibilities to gardens elsewhere. And the lack of water with the attendant search for drought-tolerant plants--always on our minds down here--doesn't seem to be an issue in B.C.

  8. The sunken garden photos were my favorite, probably because they were the widest/longest views. The rest is a bit much! Glad you mentioned the greenhouses -- I was going to ask.

    BTW this is a surprisingly long and thorough writeup on a place that you admittedly didn't love. The vacation must have recharged you. :)

    1. The Sunken Garden has the best wide views because you can see everything from an overlook above it.

      I didn't see any of the greenhouses--or any maintenance areas. They do a great job of maintaining the illusion of perfection.

      I decided to write a thorough post because no matter what my personal feelings are, Butchart Gardens is an important institution and much beloved by millions--and hence deserves some thought on my part.

      Truth be told, the next time I'm in Victoria--and I will be back--I'll visit again. There's something beguiling about millions of flowering plants even as the higher-functioning areas of my brain scream at me, "Resist the Dark Side..."

  9. I've never seen this place in person but your coverage was excellent. I'm tired just thinking about the work of planting all of those annuals several times a year. You pointed out some fabulous foliage combinations! Rose arches/ sunken garden - gorgeous.

    1. I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary about Butchart Gardens. The amount of upkeep must be staggering. No wonder admission was $33 per adult.


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