The Garden that Love Built: Abkhazi Garden, Victoria, BC
Some may not be willing to admit it, but all but the grinchiest among us enjoy a good love story. And a good love story gets even better when it plays out against the backdrop of war.
Our story starts in 1922 in Paris when 20-year old Peggy Pemberton-Carter, born in Shanghai, orphaned at age three, and raised by a world-traveling domineering adoptive mother, meets 23-year old exiled and penniless Georgian prince Nicholas Abkhazi. Sparks fly, but Peggy’s mother, threatened by the budding romance between her socialite daughter and the pauper prince, whisks Peggy back to Shanghai. Peggy and Nicholas stay in touch through letters but are kept apart by geography and circumstances.
Then comes the chaos and upheaval of World War II. Nicholas is interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, and Peggy in one near Shanghai. She keeps a diary during these tumultuous years and later writes a book entitled A Curious Cage (published in 1981 when she was 79). After her release from camp in 1945, she uses a small stash of traveler’s checks she’d kept hidden in a talcum powder can to secure passage to San Francisco. From there she travels to Victoria where she has friends and purchases the 1-acre rocky lot that will become Abkhazi Garden.
In January 1946 Peggy receives a surprise letter from Nicholas. They had lost touch during the war, and neither one knew if the other had even survived. At Nicholas’ suggestion, they meet in New York—the first time they lay eyes on each other in 13 years. Now they are finally able to be together. She is 44, and he is 47. They return to Victoria where they marry in November 1946 and live happily ever after. Nicholas dies in 1987 at the age of 88 and Peggy in 1994 at the end of 92.
This is where the story ends. Except it doesn’t. Peggy and Nicholas didn’t have children, but they spent four decades creating and refining a spectacular garden whose beauty draws visitors even now, long after their death.
In his must-have book The Pacific Northwest Garden Tour (Timber Press 2014), Donald Olson calls Abkhazi Garden a “jewel box” and “Victoria’s most charming and charismatic garden.” It was because of his evocative description that we decided to visit Abkhazi Garden on our whirlwind trip in early April. We had just toured Finnerty Gardens on the University of Victoria campus, a wonderland of flowering rhododendrons, ornamental cherries, magnolias and woodland perennials, and it was going to be a tough act to follow. But Abkhazi Garden more than lived up to the challenge. It built on the floral splendor of Finnerty Gardens and added layers of design and artistry missing from the former.
This sign at the entrance gives a brief synopsis of Peggy and Nicholas’ against-all-odds relationship and the development of the garden. For more information, visit the Friends of Abkhazi Garden website.
Let’s start our tour at the entrance on Fairfield Road:
Immediately on your left is the Rhododendron Woodland Garden, home to species and hybrid rhododendrons growing happily under a canopy of Garry oaks.
Gabrielle, a red cedar sculpture by Michael Dennis
While these rhododendrons didn’t have the vibrant colors of the specimens at Finnerty Gardens, their sculptural trunks and branches gave this section a charming magic.
This is also where we saw the first of four large metal dress sculptures by local artist Bev Petow, on view now until September 30, 2016. Inspired by ball gowns worn by Peggy Abkhazi in her younger years and then stored away for decades in a cardboard box in the basement of the Abkhazi’s house, these sculptures are breathtaking in their beauty.
Gardener’s Gown by Bev Petow
The western path eventually takes you to the South Lawn, one of two large grassy areas. From there, the view towards the Rhododendron Woodland Garden is particularly pretty.
The next photo shows the view across the lawn from the bench you see above:
The path to the right meets up with the eastern path through the Rhododendron Garden.
These colorful sempervivums were the only succulents I saw. Aren’t they perfect, nestled against the rocks like that?
This is where you get your first glimpse of the Abkhazi’s former residence on top of the rise. It is a now a Teahouse that serves elevenses and afternoon tea all year round. We didn’t have time to eat there during our April visit, but the food I saw looked delicious. Next time for sure!
The path to the left (west) takes you to the edge of the property…
…and then to the natural rock formations that provide the foundation for the house.
The heather path you see on the left in the next two photos was created by Peggy Abkhazi many years ago. She called it the Yangtze River because it reminded her of her childhood home in Shanghai. (Shanghai is located in the Yangtze River Delta.)
The small building on the left in the next photo is the Summer House. Built in 1946, it was the first structure on the property.
Another Bev Petow metal dress sculpture was displayed prominently on top of the rock outcropping:
Oh Canada! by Bev Petow
View of the Teahouse from below:
Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) may be common in Europe, but to me it looked very exotic:
Another view of the Summer House…
…and the Yangtze River heather path, this time on the right:
I don’t know what cultivar this orange-flowered azalea is, but it sure is spectacular:
Another Bev Petow sculpture, The Dragon Aunt, from the front…
The Dragon Aunt (front) by Bev Petow
…and the back:
The Dragon Aunt (back) by Bev Petow
View of the Teahouse from the far side of the North Lawn:
This was one of my favorite views:
Next I took the path along the northeastern perimeter of the property and found this serene spot:
The path continues under a canopy of Japanese maples…
…before it meets up with the path from the South Lawn at the base of the rock outcropping you saw earlier.
From there I retraced my steps along the North Lawn but this time I took the steps up towards the Teahouse. This gives you a nice view of three small ponds created by natural depressions in the rocks…
…and of the Summer House beyond:
View from the top down to the pond and the North Lawn:
At the top, to the left of the Teahouse, I found another Bev Petow steel sculpture:
Bleeding Heart by Bev Petow
I neglected to take photos of the inside of the Teahouse (it was busy and I didn’t want to bother the paying customers), but here is one of the tables on the terrace. The views from here are said to be breathtaking. Apparently, on a clear day you can see the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains in Washington State beyond. Unfortunately, it was too hazy to see that far the day we visited.
Just beyond this table, on the right, was the Oh Canada! sculpture I’d seen from below. It features 200 maple leaves “in seven sizes […] painstakingly hand-cut, hammered and welded together in the shape of a ballgown.” The article this quote is from is well worth reading. It talks about artist Bev Petow’s inspiration for these pieces and her background.
Oh Canada! by Bev Petow
The Teahouse has a small gift shop, and outside it I saw these two tree peonies named after Peggy Abkhazi:
If I lived in Victoria, I would have bought one in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, bringing plants into the U.S. is impossible for regular folks like yours truly—and tree peonies wouldn’t survive our hot climate anyway. So my only souvenir of Abkhazi Garden are the many photos I took. At least they will live on, just like Peggy and Nicholas’s garden of love has.
If you want to know more about the history of the property after the death of Peggy Abkhazi, including the struggle to save it from becoming a townhouse complex and its subsequent purchase by The Land Conservancy (TLC) in 2000, click here.